November 16, 2010


Scapegoating Federal Workers: As conservative deficit hawks go looking for new targets, expect to hear a lot about outsized federal paychecks. (Paul Waldman, November 16, 2010, American Prospect)

It is true, however, that federal workers make more on average than private-sector workers, even though their salaries are nothing like what conservatives want people to believe. Why might that be?

The answer is two-part. First, as a group, federal workers tend to be in higher-paying occupations than private-sector workers. For instance, 10 percent of the private workforce works in sales, and another 20 percent in service, occupations that make up only a tiny proportion of the federal workforce. On the other side, two-thirds of federal workers are classified as management or professional -- managers, accountants, lawyers, doctors, architects, engineers -- compared to less than a third of the private workforce.

Moreover, in recent years, many of the lower-paying jobs government employees used to do, in areas like maintenance and food service, have been farmed out to contractors. The government is still paying for that work, but the people who do it don't show up on the tally of federal salaries. When you compare government workers not to the entire population but those doing similar work, , you find that in some occupations, federal workers make slightly more, and in other occupations, they make slightly less. Overall, though, salaries for comparable jobs are very close. Just as important, government workers at all levels -- not just federal but state and local as well -- tendto be better educated, more skilled, and slightly older than private-sector workers.

A real disparity, however, exists between federal workers and private-sector workers, and that's in benefits. This brings us to the second part of the answer to the question of why federal workers do better: Many of them are represented by unions, which means they can bargain collectively for things like good wages and health benefits. Conservatives believe that when a group of workers makes reasonable middle-class salaries and has good benefits, something is amiss. The typical private-sector wage/benefit package is assumed to be the right one.

But while we can disagree about what government should be doing, we ought to be able to agree that we want government to do the things it does as well as possible. To ensure that, we need to recruit and retain quality workers. We don't have to pay them millions, but we have to pay them enough to make working for the government an attractive option. the defenders of government bureaucrats. The GOP isn't smart enough to effect that political positioning, but happily Democrats are exactly that Bright.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 16, 2010 7:08 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus