Public servants are under attack. Regular and repeated verbal assaults by conservative critics of public employees sadly have unnecessarily soured public discourse on the role of public service. The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and the six other victims who died in Tucson, AZ, makes it imperative that we change the tone of public discourse regarding public employees. Conservative rhetoric contributes to an environment in which public employees become the target of anger against public employees with baseless claims about the benefits of public employment, wages, and benefits. This only serves to divert attention from the real culprits for the Great Recession—previous conservative lawmakers and greedy speculators on Wall Street—while conservatives push through unjustified policy measures that would heap even more tax breaks on those who already do well at the expense of average Americans, including their public servants.
One popular conservative talking point is that the Recovery Act of 2009 served only to prop up public employment. Really? Public-sector employment actually fell as our economy began to recover from the economic and financial follies of the Bush administration, particularly in counties, cities, and towns, where almost two-thirds of public employees work. The largest share of local government employees, 55.5 percent to be exact, work in education, mainly as teachers. The rest are firefighters, police officers, nurses, bus drivers, and engineers, among others. Local government employment dropped by 2.4 percent during the recovery, from June 2009 to December 2010.
This is the worst such decline over the first 18 months of an economic recovery during any recovery going back to 1955. Public employment is typically positive in a recovery, even though it grows well below private-sector jobs. This time around, private-sector jobs are coming back. There were 378,000 more private jobs in December 2010 than in June 2009 while counties, cities, and towns cut 355,000 jobs at the same time.
Public employees also get paid less than their private-sector counterparts—never mind the incessant claims made by conservatives to the contrary—even when pension and health benefits are included. The nonpartisan National Institute on Retirement Security estimates that public employees get paid about 11 percent less at the state level and 12 percent less at the local level than their private-sector counterparts with equal qualifications. Accounting for health and retirement benefits shrinks the gap a little, but state and local government employees still receive compensation that is about 7 percent below private-sector compensation for people with equal qualifications.
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