Census: Government's Share of Workforce Varies Greatly Among States

New census data shows concentrations of public employees throughout the country. Public employee figures vary greatly in different areas, accounting for up to a quarter of the workforce in some states.
by | September 29, 2011

Most know Alaska as America’s last frontier, but it’s also home to a significantly high concentration of government workers.

Census data released last week indicates public employees account for 27 percent of the state’s total workforce – the highest rate in the country behind the District of Columbia.

Results for the 2010 American Community Survey show wide variations in public employees among states. Nationwide, those employed at all levels government combined to account for 15.3 percent of the total workforce.

Jeffrey Keefe, an associate professor at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, says wealthier areas and populations centers typically employ higher numbers of government workers. Public employment has mirrored private sector job losses in areas where the economy is struggling, he says.

States with large federal installations and those near Washington, D.C., understandably, rank higher.

After the District of Columbia and Alaska, the survey reported the largest percentage of government workers reside in New Mexico (24.1 percent), Maryland (23 percent) and Hawaii (22 percent).

Alaska is unique in that it does not impose a state income or sales tax. The state’s coffers are funded primarily with oil revenue. Jeremy Thompson, executive director of the Alaska Policy Forum, says state legislators and public employee unions feel little pressure to cut staffing levels because of this steady stream of revenue.

“If you have more money and no one feels the pain when the state spends a lot, government has the incentive to spend more,” says Thompson, whose conservative group specializes in policy and economic analysis.

Along with oil fields, Alaska is home to 75 million acres of federal public land. Thompson says the state’s figures are also boosted by public employees working for the Alaska Tribal Health System.

Nationwide, Keefe says public employment reached its peak in the mid-1970s, when it accounted for about 19 percent of labor. But in recent years, the rate has remained stagnant.

He does not expect the public sector’s share of the workforce to climb above the current rate of 15.3 percent with the current state of the economy.

“I think we’re going to go through a very rough patch here where everything is scrutinized and states have to balance their budgets,” Keefe says.

Regions with differing forms of government or where privatization has been aggressively pursued reported lower levels of public employment. Pennsylvania ranks at the bottom of the list, with public employees making up 11.9 percent of the state’s workforce.

Jeremy Plant, a professor of public policy and administration at Penn State University in Harrisburg, said the state’s high number of small municipal governments likely restrains full-time public employment. Government workers in these smaller towns often work on a part time or volunteer basis.

Areas throughout the state have mostly resisted efforts to consolidate government services.

“I think there’s a very strong tradition of local and community-based governments,” Plant said. “People have this ingrained sense of local independence.”

With recent budget cuts and private sector job losses, Plant doesn’t expect any increase in Pennsylvania’s public employment.

“I don’t see anyone saying we need more public workers,” he says.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 American Community Survey

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