Government Workers vs. Taxpayers

Why the president needs to reverse his stance on hiring additional federal workers

President Obama’s proposed 2013 budget includes plans to add 2,400 new federal government workers. This, on the heels of the more than 200,000 government workers added during the Great Recession. Once again, this highlights elected officials’ failure to recognize that cutting the government workforce is central to getting government budgets back under control without raising taxes and jeopardizing the economic recovery.

These figures also raise the question of why is it government workers impose a large burden on budgets. The benign view of government workers is one of a “public servant” sacrificing lucrative private sector pay and opportunities for advancement to, instead, work to ensure all of us get necessary and high quality public services. And this is true of a lot of individual government workers. I have good friends in government, and many of them do work diligently to do great jobs. And they don’t have the same opportunities for advancement and pay as they probably would have working in the private sector.

But the real fly in the ointment is the government worker union. It seems its purpose for existing is to oppose taxpayers’ interests and to advance government workers’ interests. Put simply, its mission is to get more money from taxpayers to redistribute it to government workers.

The government union’s success, in recent decades, has exploded the “public servant” ethos.

Do government workers really sacrifice to serve the public? Not according to actual data. Plenty of analysis has shown that government workers enjoy higher pay and benefits than they would likely get in the private sector while being less productive. Naturally the debate of those facts has been lively, but the latest salvo was particularly instructive. This January the Congressional Budget Office issued a report comparing federal and private sector worker pay and benefits sorted according to the education level of the workers. As the graph below shows, the comparison is pretty devastating to the “public servant” myth. Government worker unions have succeeded in ensuring that federal workers have higher pay and benefits than private workers with similar education, except at the Ph.D. level.

CBO Chart

And that pay disparity has really been ramping up in recent years. While private sector pay has been flat during the recession, a USA Today report found that federal pay for all sorts of jobs has been soaring. For example a “20- to 24-year-old auto mechanic started at an average of $46,427 this year, up from $36,750 five years ago.” And lest you think this is a boon for the “99 percent”, another USA Today report found that the number of federal workers earning a princely $150,000 or more leapt from 7,240 in 2005 to 82,034 in 2010 — a more than 1000% increase!

But that is not all that federal workers enjoy. USA Today uncovered in yet another report that federal workers are far more likely to die on the job than be fired. In 2010 the feds fired 0.55% of its workers (60 percent of them new employees in their first 2 years on the job) compared to 3 percent of private sector workers who were fired.

So government worker unions have been very successful at getting taxpayers to fund higher pay, benefits and better job security for their members. But at what cost? To give you a sense of the costs, analysis by State Budget Solutions found that right-to-work states, where government worker unions have much less influence, have much lower state debt and enjoyed more economic growth and much more job growth over the last decade.


Non Right-to-Work

Average state debt per capita



Average state debt per capita ranking



Average total state debt (in thousands)



FY00-FY10Private Industry Growth



FY00-FY10 Job Growth

Gained 3,600,000

Lost 900,000

The lesson here is that when government workers unions succeed, it’s the taxpayer who bears the consequences. If President Obama and Congress are going to get serious about the deficit, they are going to have to reduce the federal workforce and face the disparity in pay and benefits. The same is true at the state and local level if they want to get their budgets in order, too.

Adrian Moore, Ph.D., is vice president of policy at Reason Foundation.