The Great Recession and its aftermath are entering a new phase in the United States, which could bring even more severe assaults on the living standards and basic rights of ordinary people than we have experienced thus far. This is because a wide swath of the country’s policy- and opinion-making elite have singled out public sector workers—including schoolteachers, healthcare workers, police officers and firefighters—as well as their unions and even their pensions as deadweight burdens sapping the economy’s vitality.
The Great Recession did blow a massive hole in state and municipal government finances, with tax receipts—including income, sales and property taxes—dropping sharply along with household incomes, spending and real estate values. Meanwhile, demand for public services, such as Medicaid and heating oil assistance, has risen as people’s circumstances have worsened. But let’s remember that the recession was caused by Wall Street hyper-speculation, not the pay scales of elementary school teachers or public hospital nurses.
Nonetheless, a rising chorus of commentators charge that public sector workers are overpaid relative to employees in comparable positions in the private sector. The fact that this claim is demonstrably false appears not to matter. Instead, the attacks are escalating. The most recent proposal gaining traction is to write new laws that would allow states to declare bankruptcy. This would let them rip up contracts with current public sector employees and walk away from their pension fund obligations. Only by declaring bankruptcy, Republican luminaries Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich argued in the Los Angeles Times, will states be able to “reform their bloated, broken and underfunded pension systems for current and future workers.”
But this charge is emanating not only from the Republican right; in a front-page story on January 20, the New York Times reported on a more general trend spreading across the country in which “policymakers are working behind the scenes to come up with a way to let states declare bankruptcy and get out from under crushing debts, including the pensions they have promised to retired public workers.”
Considered together, state and local governments are the single largest employer in the US economy. They are also the country’s most important providers of education, healthcare, public safety and other vital forms of social support. Meanwhile, the official unemployment rate is stuck at 9 percent—a more accurate figure is 16.1 percent—a full eighteen months after the recession was declared over. How have we reached the point where the dominant mantra is to dismantle rather than shore up state and local governments in their moment of crisis?
Why States Need Support During Recessions
The Wall Street–induced recession clobbered state and local government budgets. By 2009, state tax revenues had fallen by fully 13 percent relative to where they were in 2007, and they remained at that low level through most of last year. By comparison, revenues never fell by more than 6 percent in the 2001 recession. Even during the 1981–82 recession, the last time unemployment reached 9 percent, the decline in state tax revenues never exceeded 2 percent. These revenue losses, starting in 2008, when taken together with the increased demand for state services, produced an average annual budget gap in 2009–11 of $140 billion, or 21 percent of all state spending commitments.