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Conservatives Need to Understand that Attacking Public Servants Isn’t the Answer

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.

These cuts mean fewer public services. Less health care, larger class sizes, and slower snow removal are just some of the examples that come to mind.

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.

Local governments are struggling mightily from the fallout of the economic crisis. The crisis started with a bursting housing bubble. Falling home sales forced house prices ever lower, putting many households underwater on their mortgages (they owed more than their homes were worth) and fueled a historically unprecedented wave of foreclosures. Millions of homes are sitting empty while homeowners saw the value of their largest asset plummet by double-digit rates. Both foreclosures and lower home values spell trouble for local governments. You cannot get blood from a stone, and neither can local governments get property taxes from a foreclosed property. And the homes that are occupied are worth less, taking property tax assessment down with them.

Conservatives are now taking aim at public service jobs again. Their mantra is “cut, cut, cut” public-sector jobs, wages, and benefits. Conservatives target teachers, firefighters, police officers, bus drivers, and others, because very often they are unionized and because it diverts attention from their policy actions. Conservatives continue to support massive income inequality in our country, such as excessive Wall Street bonuses amid a struggling labor market, by fighting for ever larger tax cuts for the top 2-to-3 percent of taxpayers.

Businesses are also sitting on cash, using their reserves to pay dividends and buy back their shares to keep their executives and shareholders happy, rather than to hire and invest. Conservatives would like to lower the corporate tax burden to give corporations—drum roll, please—even more cash. Corporations will use these additional funds for share repurchases and dividends, rather than investments, if the recent past is any indication. And conservatives want to take away extended unemployment insurance benefits, whenever they get a chance, exacerbating the pain for millions of Americans.

It is time to end the baseless attacks on public employees that fuel more hatred and violence. Public employees have suffered as much if not more than private-sector workers and their economic insecurity is equally in jeopardy as it is for private-sector employees. Conservative attacks drive an artificial wedge into America’s middle class to divert attention from the lack of policies to combat massive economic security and from the egregious policies to heap ever more goodies on those who already do well.

Christian E. Weller is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Associate Professor for Public Policy and Public Affairs, University of Massachusetts Boston.