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.