The government job losses that are holding the recovery back are directly related to the Republican state legislators who were swept to power in 2010.
Last Friday, both presidential candidates had a back-and-forth over the issue of public sector jobs. President Obama said that the private sector is doing fine but the public sector needs help and is threatening the recovery, and Mitt Romney attacked the idea that "we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.”
This has lead to new interest in the decline of public sector workers over the past three years. Two major economists from Yale, Ben Polak and Peter K. Schott, just wrote a post at at Economix titled "America’s Hidden Austerity Program."
Polak and Schott argue that "there is something historically different about this recession and its aftermath: in the past, local government employment has been almost recession-proof. This time it’s not... Without this hidden austerity program, the economy would look very different. If state and local governments had followed the pattern of the previous two recessions, they would have added 1.4 million to 1.9 million jobs and overall unemployment would be 7.0 to 7.3 percent instead of 8.2 percent."
But why is this happening? Polak and Schott:
One possibility is that we are witnessing a secular change in state and local politics, with voters no longer willing to pay for an ever-larger work force. An alternative explanation is that even though many state and local governments are constrained not to run deficits, they can muddle through a standard recession without cutting jobs. But when hit by a huge recession like that of 1981 or the latest one, the usual mix of creative accounting and shifting in capital expenditures cannot absorb the shock, and jobs have to go.
This drop in public-sector workers is well documented, and it is great to get more economists ringing the bell on it. But I think there needs to be more research into how this has happened. As my colleague Bryce Covert notes over at The Nation, "the massive job loss we’ve been experiencing in the public sector is no random coincidence or unfortunate side effect. It is part of an ideological battle waged by ultra conservatives who were swept into power in the 2010 elections."
As we've written before (article, white paper), the 11 states that the Republicans took over during the 2010 midterm elections – Alabama, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – account for 40.5 percent of the total losses. By itself, Texas accounts for an additional 31 percent of the total losses. So these 12 states account for over 70 percent of total public sector job losses in 2011. This is even more important because there was a continued decline in public sector workers in 2011 even though the economy was no longer in free fall.
The 11 states that the Republicans took over in 2010 laid oﬀ, on average, 2.5 percent of their government workforces in a single year. This is compared to the overall average of 0.5 percent for the rest of the states. So while it is a nation-wide event, it is concentrated in states that went red in 2011:
Wisconsin, for instance, lost nearly 3 percent of its workforce in 2011 alone, which shows how high the stakes are. Conservatives are tearing down and rebuilding state governance during this Great Recession. There is an element of state and local layoffs that is strictly budgetary, as the average for all the groups is negative. But there is also an element that is about a face-off between President Obama and new conservative state legislatures.
There's two things worth considering about this dynamic. The first is that any stimulus offered from the federal government could be refused or re-directed to other purposes by state governments. The fighting over getting conservative states to accept stimulus money, which was a battle in 2009-2010, would have been much more heated after the 2010 election. And if money did come in under the rubric of helping retain teachers it may, without a political battle, just go to reducing corporate taxes. We are already seeing this with the AG foreclosure fraud settlement money, which is being redirected to other purposes in many states.
The other is that this should be viewed through the lens of the series of standoffs the administration has with conservatives at the state level. The administration has been fighting with Arizona over its "papers please" immigration law, Florida over voter record purges, and several states in battles over GLBTQ rights and reproductive freedom. Trying to keep red states from slashing their workforces in a time of economic weakness is another front in this battle for those trying to steer the economy toward full employment.
Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.
Ben Polak is the chairman of the economics department at Yale University.Peter K. Schott is a professor of economics at the Yale School of Management.
Why is the recovery from this recession different from recoveries from past recessions? In the previous two recessions, it took 32 months for nonfarm employment to reattain its June 1990 peak, and 48 months for it to reattain its January 2001 peak. Assuming the economy keeps adding nonfarm employment at the current rate, it will have taken 88 months to reattain its January 2008 peak. The explanation most often heard is that “financial crises are different”: after a debt crisis, shaken consumers are reluctant to spend and shaken firms are reluctant to hire, slowing private-sector job growth even after the recession has bottomed out.
There is some truth in this, but it is not the whole story. In fact, while the latest recession was particularly deep, the recovery in private-sector employment, once it finally started, has not been particularly slow by recent historical standards. In the 27 months since the start of the current employment recovery, the private sector has added 4.3 million jobs, fewer than the 5.0 million it added in the 27 months after February 1992 but not many fewer than the 4.5 million it added in the equivalent period after August 2003.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
But there is something historically different about this recession and its aftermath: in the past, local government employment has been almost recession-proof. This time it’s not. Going back as long as the data have been collected (1955), with the one exception of the 1981 recession, local government employment continued to grow almost every month regardless of what the economy threw at it. But since the latest recession began, local government employment has fallen by 3 percent, and is still falling. In the equivalent period following the 1990 and 2001 recessions, local government employment grew 7.7 and 5.2 percent. Even following the 1981 recession, by this stage local government employment was up by 1.4 percent.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Who is losing these local government jobs? In 1981 it was mostly teachers. Now, the losses are shared by teachers and other local government workers alike.
State government is much less important than local because it is a much smaller share of total nonfarm employment: 4 percent versus 10 percent. Nevertheless, a similar story can be told there. This far into each recession since 1955, state government employment had grown. Since the start of the latest recession, state government employment is still down 1.2 percent.
Without this hidden austerity program, the economy would look very different. If state and local governments had followed the pattern of the previous two recessions, they would have added 1.4 million to 1.9 million jobs and overall unemployment would be 7.0 to 7.3 percent instead of 8.2 percent.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Why is this happening? One possibility is that we are witnessing a secular change in state and local politics, with voters no longer willing to pay for an ever-larger work force. An alternative explanation is that even though many state and local governments are constrained not to run deficits, they can muddle through a standard recession without cutting jobs. But when hit by a huge recession like that of 1981 or the latest one, the usual mix of creative accounting and shifting in capital expenditures cannot absorb the shock, and jobs have to go.
It has become commonplace to contrast the American and European responses to the Great Recession, with stimulus in the former and austerity in the latter. European austerity has been at the level of member states and local governments — there is no meaningful federal government of Europe to provide either stimulus or austerity. But the United States has also seen unprecedented austerity at the level of state and local governments, and this austerity has slowed the job recovery.