Gov. Pat McCrory promised in 2013 to increase state government’s efficiency by weeding out nonproductive state employees who he described as “seat warmers.”
He need not have bothered making that a goal. A conservative fixation on holding down government spending during the recession and its aftermath has winnowed the ranks of government employees at all levels. Now the problem isn’t seat warmers, but empty desks, reduced services and a lack of growth in public employment that continues to be a major drag on the economy.
The willful contraction of public employment is a problem at the national, state and local levels.
An analysis from the Economic Policy Institute estimates that between government jobs lost to budget cuts and those that should have been added to keep up with population growth, the economy is short 1.8 million public sector jobs. About a third of these missing jobs are in public education as local school boards and public university systems cope with budget cuts even as the need for a better-educated workforce grows.
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Josh Bivens, EPI’s research and policy director, said shedding public jobs and curtailing education and government services are a false economy. “If we cut back a lot in the here and now and don’t make the investment we need, we’re really kind of strangling economic growth in the future to make budgets look better today,” he said.
In North Carolina, McCrory and Republican legislative leaders have cut taxes and reorganized the state’s business recruitment process to attract more employers, but those measures have brought little success. The simplest and surest way to create jobs would to be restore public employment to its level before the recession. That would create more jobs and create more demand that would in turn increase private sector employment.
Consider what has happened with education employment in North Carolina. From the 2007-08 school year to the 2013-14 school year, the number of public school teachers dropped from 97,676 to 95,116, a loss of 2,560 teaching jobs. Meanwhile, the student population increased over that period by nearly 60,000. Overall, state and local education employment, including nonteaching personnel, has fallen by 11,000 jobs since 2008. At the state level, employees covered by the State Personnel Act have dropped from 70,338 in 2008 to 63,084 this year, a 10 percent decline.
Nationwide, it’s the same. The Rockefeller Institute reports that as of last December, state and local government employment was down 3.0 percent, or 598,000 jobs, from the peak level recorded in August 2008.
Many Americans are getting a sense of the impact this tax season. Congress has reduced IRS funding 10 percent since 2011, causing a workforce reduction of 18,000 that includes 2,500 fewer people to answer calls. The agency estimates that more than 60 percent of calls to the IRS now go unanswered.
In North Carolina, the cuts in public employment have come with an extra negative effect. Not only does government offer less service, but the tax burden for middle- and low-income people has generally increased to pay for tax reductions for the wealthy and corporations.
Conservatives think they’re encouraging efficiency through austerity. But what they actually are doing is weakening the recovery, reducing services and making it harder for schools to educate tomorrow’s workforce. In the past, public sector jobs have increased during economic recoveries.
In the United States, state and local government employment accounts for approximately 14 percent of total employment. Those jobs have an impact on areas such as public safety, social services and health care.
Instead of targeting imaginary “seat warmers,” the state legislature should bring back public sector jobs and bring back the economy.