Bryce Covert is the Editor of the Roosevelt Institute's New Deal 2.0 blog and a writer for The Nation.
It's no secret anymore (particularly since Obama's The-Private-Sector-Is-Doing-Fine-Gate) that there have been huge numbers of government worker layoffs during the recovery. Many are rightly pointing out that this is only making the jobs crisis worse. But what's behind those losses?
In a column in the New York Times yesterday, Tyler Cowen suggested that it's Americans' lack of trust in government, which has been steadily eroding over recent decades. And he is certainly right that Americans are distrustful of their government. Approval ratings have been hitting record lows lately. In November, Congress was less popular than the IRS, lawyers and BP during the oil spill, and it was tied with Hugo Chávez.
But is that what's driving cuts in the public sector workforce? Cowen thinks so. He writes:
State and local governments are controlled by politicians and, indirectly, by voters. And for better or worse, those voters have lost faith in the social returns of these jobs and our ability to afford them. The voters have responded by looking to cut expenses, and they've chosen state and local government employment as a target.
It may be true that many voters are showing support for cutting public workers' benefits. But the job losses, as shown by research my colleague Mike Konczal and I conducted, are a result of the ultraconservative agendas carried in by the Republicans who took over state legislatures in 2010. These job cuts are not happening across the board; they're clustered in a small handful of red states. The eleven that went Republican in the 2010 midterms — Alabama, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — were responsible for 40 percent of public sector job losses last year. Add in the massive red state of Texas and we can account for almost three-quarters of all the layoffs. All other states lost a far lower percent of their government workers: just about half of their payrolls, on average.
True, voters put these lawmakers in office. But one has only to look at the tight race Scott Walker was forced to run merely to keep his job to see the ire his attack on public workers in Wisconsin has provoked. Voters may have thrown the incumbent bums out because of a crappy economy in 2010, but if Wisconsin shows us anything, it's that voters weren't asking lawmakers to ram through ideological agendas that have the potential to make the economy worse.
Do Americans overall support public workers? It's true that they tend to say they want to cut government spending, and many have lost faith in what government does in theory. But just as there is no specific government program that a majority of Americans want to cut funding for, when public workers are broken down into their specific jobs, there's quite a lot of support for them.
First, it's good to be clear about what jobs we're really talking about when we say government workers. Much as the term might bring up visions of paper-pushers at the DMV, by far the largest group of government employees is teachers. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, there are nearly 7 million people working in our public elementary and secondary schools. The next runner-up is those who work in protective services: in other words, cops and firefighters.
And there is significant public support for those workers. Greg Sargent took a tour through some polling done around the time that Obama proposed the American Jobs Act, which would spend $35 billion to prevent the layoffs of teachers, cops and firefighters, and found big majorities in favor of keeping them on the job. A CNN poll found that three-quarters of Americans supported sending federal money to state governments so they could hire teachers and first responders — including 72 percent of independents. A National Journal poll found that 70 percent thought sending such funds would be "very effective" or "somewhat effective" in creating jobs. Perhaps even more interesting, however, was that there was also support for the general idea of government workers. A New York Times/CBS poll found that over half of Americans, including over half of independents, think it's smart to "provide money to state governments to avoid layoffs" — without specifying what jobs it might save.
This doesn't get around the fact that the public has been voting in support of cutting back on these employees' benefits. Cowen mentions the fact that voters in San Diego and San Jose voted overwhelmingly this month to cut back on pension benefits for city workers. Even Democratic mayors in Chicago and Providence, Rhode Island, and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn have been seeking similar cuts, and our own governor in New York has been famously aggressive in his dealings with public sector unions. Given the ease with which the cuts were passed in California, there may be momentum behind these mayors and governors. And certainly not everyone is in support of spending money to hire back teachers and policemen. As Catherine Rampell noted in a follow-up to Cowen's piece, it may very well be that cutting government spending leads to a vicious cycle: voters think government services are poorly run and demand cuts to funding, making those services even less effective and hurting support even more.
But whether or not there's support for reducing benefits, voters seem pretty turned off when it comes to cutting public sector jobs. Keeping teachers, policemen and firefighters in their jobs isn't just smart for a flailing economy. It turns out to be politically smart, too.