NOTE: Read an updated version of this analysis with more recent data.
Calls to shrink the size of government continue to persist as public employees have, to a certain extent, come to symbolize an anti-government sentiment across parts of the country.
But while it may seem counterintuitive, it’s mostly red states more aligned with these views that are typically home to the highest concentrations of employees on government payrolls.
Eight of the top 10 states with the highest per capita rates of non-educational public employees voted for Mitt Romney in the last presidential election, according to a review of recent Census of Governments data tallying state and local public workers.
Nationally, state and local governments employed 237 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers, not including teachers, for every 10,000 residents in 2012.
In Wyoming, approximately 450 non-educational FTEs per 10,000 residents hold government jobs, the nation’s highest rate. Factoring in teachers, governments in the Cowboy State employ nearly one worker for every 10 people. It’s a fact that runs counter to the state’s political ideology, with a Gallup survey published in January finding more residents identified themselves as conservatives than any other state.
The state maintains higher concentrations of public employees across multiple categories, but it’s hospital employment that’s most responsible for the elevated total. An unusually high number of public hospitals operate in the state – about 80 percent of all acute care facilities, according to the Wyoming State Hospital Association.
Wyoming’s jails and state prisons also employ more workers per capita than any other state, approximately 36 per 10,000 residents. State Department of Corrections director Bob Lampert attributes this to the state’s heavy emphasis on direct supervision and treatment programs, both of which require added staffing. “The state puts additional staff and resources into helping the offenders succeed, and it’s demonstrated in [lower rates of recidivism],” he said.
Not too far behind Wyoming is Alaska, with about 392 non-educational FTEs per 10,000 residents on public payrolls. Data indicates the state is home to disproportionately large numbers of highway and natural resources workers given its relatively small population. It also likely doesn’t hurt that its coffers are almost perennially flush with oil revenues.
New York – one of the few more liberal states near the top of the list – employs about 320 FTEs for every 10,000 residents.
The following map shows states with the most state and local public employees per capita, excluding education:
It’s clear that states spanning the Great Plains and southern U.S., which tend to be more conservative, in fact, pay for more government employees per person.
These counts don’t include federal workers or contract employees. Educational employees – mostly teachers – account for about half the public workforce and are examined separately here.
In other select states, public employees aren’t nearly as prevalent. Take Michigan and Nevada, for example, where per capita government employment is essentially half that of Wyoming and Alaska.
With a few exceptions, states with lower concentrations of government workers are more left-of-center politically. Seven of the 10 states recording the fewest government workers per capita cast electoral votes for Obama in 2012.
Public employees are most scarce in Arizona, where there were about 123,000 state and local employees on payrolls in 2012, excluding education. That’s just 188 FTEs per every 10,000 residents.
One factor complicating matters is that the state’s public workforce hasn’t kept pace with its population. While Arizona’s population gains have slowed since the recession, the state still remains one of the nation's fast-growing. Thomas Volgy, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona, also attributes the low government employment to voter sensitivity concerning the size of government.
“All levels of government are in a constant catch-up situation with a small number of employees,” he said.
After Arizona, states with the least non-educational state and local workers are Michigan, Nevada and Illinois – each with about 200 per 10,000 residents. California and Texas – two ideologically opposed states – employ roughly the same number of non-educational public employees per capita.
Further examining employment data for job classification types highlights areas of government pushing up the totals.
Some states, particularly Wyoming and in the South, are home to far greater numbers of public hospital and health employees.
Rural states employ more highway and departments of public works employees, which the Census defines as those operating and maintaining streets and other infrastructure. It’s no surprise that Alaska employs the most such workers to cover its vast transportation network – about 56 FTEs per 10,000 residents. That’s about five times the per capita rate for highway workers in Florida, Nevada and other states.
There’s also wide variation among states’ corrections employment. On the low end are Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. Minnesota, another state with a relatively small corrections staff, employs 17 FTEs per 10,000 people. The state enjoys the second lowest incarceration rate nationally thanks to a community corrections model that emphasizes local control of offenders versus institutionalization, officials at the Minnesota Department of Corrections report.
In terms of police presence, Census counts suggest New York, Massachusetts and Louisiana claim the top per capita rates.
States’ public education employment levels hinge on a range of factors, primarily school budgets, demographics and the presence of private schools. Vermont employs 340 elementary and secondary employees per 10,000 residents, more than any other state. By comparison, rates for Washington and Nevada are about 150.
Similarly large discrepancies exist in higher education. North Dakota employs approximately 137 higher education employees per 10,000 residents, by far the highest tally of any state. Linda Donlin, the state university system’s communication director, said lawmakers boosted support of public colleges and universities to both resume existing projects and expand programs to meet the demands of state’s rapidly expanding energy-based economy.
Public Employment Per Capita by Job Classification
The following table shows, for select job classification types, the number of full-time equivalent state and local government workers per 10,000 residents in 2012. Data for other smaller functions of government are not shown.
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Interpreting the Data
Figures published in the table and story refer to full-time equivalent (FTE) employees. Total numbers of full and part-time employees are higher, particularly in states with more employees working part time. Employee counts do not include federal workers or private contractors. Definitions describing types of employees for job types shown are available in the Census Bureau’s classification manual, beginning on page 373. NOTE: Read an updated version of this analysis with more recent data.