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Renée Loth

The value of public-sector jobs

It’s Labor Day weekend in a presidential election year, so we’re bound to hear lots of oratory about jobs. “The American people are still asking ‘where are the jobs?’ ” House Speaker John Boehner said earlier this week at the Republican national convention. “We created 200,000 brand-new good-paying jobs!” Vice President Joe Biden said in a Midwest campaign speech aimed at the auto industry.

Everyone wants to be a job creator. But in this economy, some jobs are created more equal than others. Since mid-2009, when the financial collapse bottomed out and the economy began its fitful recovery, the private sector has added 4.5 million jobs, with net increases in each of the last 29 months. In July alone, according to the US Labor Department, the private sector added 163,000 jobs, mostly in manufacturing and health care.


But the public sector has lost more than 600,000 jobs since 2009, and 9,000 more government jobs were cut in July.

With the exception of a one-time blip in temporary hiring of US Census-takers in 2010, government jobs at all levels — local teachers and police, state prison guards and college professors, federal air-traffic controllers and park rangers — have declined every month for the last three years. Indeed, according to an analysis of labor statistics by the Brookings Institution, the percentage of Americans holding government jobs today is at a record low, lower than when Ronald Reagan was president, and much lower than under both Bush presidents.

This, of course, is what President Obama was referring to when he said — clumsily — “the private sector is doing fine” during a press conference in June. (Who knew Obama was taking rhetoric lessons from Joe Biden?) Obama’s frustration is understandable, though: If public employment had held steady during the recovery period, according to some estimates, today’s unemployment rate would be 7.8 percent instead of the current 8.3.


But public-sector workers can’t get any respect. Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard (and a potential choice for treasury secretary should Mitt Romney win the presidential election) disparaged public jobs at a convention event in Tampa this week. “I think sometimes liberals actually believe that public-sector jobs are the same as private-sector jobs. They are not,” she said. Romney’s economic plan calls for cutting the federal workforce an additional 10 percent. Apparently, this won’t have any ill effect on the unemployment rate.

For Fiorina, who champions women’s achievement in the workplace, the disdain of government workers is especially poignant, because public-sector unemployment has been particularly hard on women. Despite gains in other professions, the reality is that most teachers, public-health nurses, and clerks are still women, and so they are disproportionately hurt when local governments cut back. And in 2011 there were 220,000 fewer teachers in the country than in 2009.

It’s puzzling that so many conservatives devalue public-sector jobs, since these workers pump money into the economy the same as anyone. Why is a tennis pro at a private club any more useful to the economy than an elementary school gym teacher? In fact, because state and local governments contract out so much of their work to private vendors, government employment spurs the private job market, too.

This ripple effect of government cash through the private economy is known as a multiplier. The economist Mark Zandi estimates that every federal dollar spent on state aid returns $1.31 in multiplier effects. So tight-fisted spending policies are dragging down the recovery, especially among people at the lower end of the income scale, who tend to pump cash into the economy more quickly. Austerity isn’t working in Ireland or Greece; it isn’t likely to work in Stockton, Calif., or Jefferson County, Ala. — both municipalities that are facing bankruptcy.


During the welfare reform debates of the 1990s, we heard many variations on the statement “Any job is a good job.” Now it seems some jobs are expendable, or at least less desirable. But the 9 percent of the American workforce who repair our highways, test our food, plow our streets, and treat our sick are keeping the economy going and looking out for the public welfare. If we lose them, we’re all a little poorer.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.