States Where Government Workers Are Most Prevalent

There's a wide variation in the numbers of public employees and how much they cost in each state. See how yours compares.
by | July 19, 2016
Alaska has more highway workers per capita than any other state. (FlickrCC/Jean-Marie Prival)

In Alaska and Wyoming, there are more than twice as many state and local government workers per capita compared to states like Michigan or Nevada. Similar discrepancies exist in public employee payroll costs. New Hampshire and South Dakota, for example, spend far less (given their residents' incomes) than most other places.

The U.S. Census Bureau tallies numbers of government workers as part of its Annual Survey of Public Employment and Payroll. The most recent data covering 2014 depicts wide variation in the prevalence of public employment across the country, driven by numerous factors in individual states.

We’ve crunched the numbers to approximate the size of both state and local public employment in each state relative to other jurisdictions. Several different measures can be used to assess public employment, and they’re all subject to various limitations and are not indicative of government efficiency.

States With the Most Public Employees Per Capita 

The most basic measure of public employment is the total number of workers per capita.

Wyoming’s state and local governments employ approximately 446 public workers, excluding education, for every 10,000 residents -- the highest rate nationally. The state is unique in that it operates an unusually high number of public hospitals, including the vast majority of acute care facilities. Wyoming governments also employ the most corrections employees of any state and the second highest number of highway workers.

Not too far behind is Alaska, with 392 noneducation public employees for every 10,000 residents. It’s no surprise that with its vast network of roads, the state has more highway employees per capita than any other state. Census data further suggests that it’s the top state for public financial administration and natural resources employment. But given that Alaska relies heavily on oil tax revenues -- which have taken a hit because of low oil prices -- it’s possible that public employment in the state could start to shrink a bit.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are Arizona, Michigan and Nevada, where there are roughly half as many state and local employees per capita. Michigan’s employee counts remain low across the board, particularly for highways and law enforcement.

While the prevalence of public employees doesn’t necessarily correspond with political ideology, states with higher numbers tend to be more conservative. Eight of the top 10 states with the most public employees per capita voted Republican in the last presidential election.

The following table lists state and local full-time equivalent (FTE) employees per 10,000 residents. Since education employment is so large -- roughly half the workforce -- it’s excluded from these calculations and is presented separately below. Note that there's a much larger variation in the figures covering only state government employment. How responsibilities are divided between states and their localities varies considerably, so combined state and local government employment provides for a more comprehensive measure.

Figures represent aggregate totals for noneducation public employees. See note below.

SOURCE: Governing calculations of U.S. Census Bureau 2014 Annual Survey of Public Employment & Payroll data

Public Employee Payroll Costs

The Census Bureau also published public employee payroll costs for the month of March 2014. For this measure, we’ve calculated state and local government payroll costs relative to each state’s total personal income, as reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Again, Alaska and Wyoming spend the most nationally on public payroll costs given their personal incomes, followed by New York and California.

As one would expect, states with greater payroll costs generally have more public workers, but this isn’t always the case. California’s per capita public employment rate, for instance, is slightly lower than the national average, but its payroll costs given personal incomes are the fourth highest. North Dakota’s state and local governments, meanwhile, employ the eighth highest number of public employees per capita, while their payroll spending rate ranks near the bottom.

Regional differences in costs of living play a role here, as does the composition of the workforce since some types of employees will command far higher salaries than others.

The wide variation in public payroll expenses is also largely a function of available revenues. States that don’t collect much tax revenue simply can’t afford to pay for more employees. Consider New Hampshire, with the lowest aggregate public employee payroll costs given its total personal income. The state lacks both a broad-based income and sales tax. South Dakota’s governments, which spend the second-lowest amount, similarly don’t impose an individual income tax.

Interestingly, public payroll given states’ personal income doesn’t correlate with per capita incomes. Connecticut, the wealthiest state, spends significantly less on public payrolls than other states and localities. No correlation similarly exists between per capita incomes and public employment per capita.

This table shows states’ aggregate March 2014 payroll costs, excluding education, per $100,000 of annual personal income. Figures do not include benefits.

Figures represent aggregate totals for noneducation public employees. See note below.

SOURCE: Governing calculations of U.S. Census Bureau 2014 Annual Survey of Public Employment & Payroll data, BEA 2014 personal income data.

Education

Schools account for, by far, the single largest segment of public employment.

On a per capita basis, Wyoming (321 employees/10,000 population) and Vermont (317 employees/10,000 population) recorded the highest tallies of elementary-secondary education workers, roughly double other select states. Alternatively, comparing payroll expenses relative to personal incomes suggests Florida, Washington and Arizona spend the least nationally.

A litany of factors influence elementary-secondary education employment and payroll across states. Demographics, for one, play a role as more children reside in some states. Class sizes and state funding formulas also affect the workforce.

Even larger variation exists across higher education employment and payroll. New Mexico, Kansas and Iowa report higher per capita employment counts and payroll costs for their colleges and universities compared to other states.

SOURCE: Governing calculations of U.S. Census Bureau 2014 Annual Survey of Public Employment & Payroll data, BEA 2014 personal income data.

(The Census Bureau also publishes a separate set of more comprehensive data covering all types of public education spending.)

Factors Behind Variations in Public Employment

So what explains the wide variation in public employment and payroll costs?

To start, it’s worth noting that some governments simply have more revenues than others to fund public employment.

“The initial decisions that may have been made decades ago about tax structures and the levels of support people are willing to provide government have a major impact on spending today,” said Barry Van Lare, a public policy and management consultant who worked for the National Governors Association. “In very few instances do you see states and localities that reduce expenditures and attempt to restrain spending when their tax base is providing enough resources.”

In addition, federal aid and reimbursement support some programs that states and localities administer -- a factor not reflected in payroll costs given state personal incomes.

How public services are delivered also influences the extent to which governments employ public workers. Privatization of public services obviously affects employment numbers. Health care and corrections are two areas where contracting out is most common, and thus factors in how many health care and corrections officers are employed in different states. Consider hospital employment: In six states, there are fewer than 10 hospital public employees for every 10,000 residents. But in Mississippi and Wyoming, the rate exceeds 100 employees.

Of course, states’ policy priorities also can push numbers of public employees up or down. States with laws resulting in higher incarceration rates, for instance, increase the need for corrections staff. Demographics further play a role as residents in different age groups and income levels may require more public services than others.

Numbers of individual units of government, which vary greatly across states, influence public employment as well. More special districts and local governments within a region will drive up costs, said Van Lare.

Overall, the data provides for a broad overview of the size of public employment in each state. This doesn't mean, however, that it's a reliable gauge of government efficiency given all the different factors and conditions within states. In assessing efficiency, Van Lare said it's more meaningful to compare a narrow set of data across common government functions in individual jurisdictions.

Pubic Employment and Payroll Data

Data notes:

  • Figures do not reflect federal employees or contract workers. The Census survey data also excludes unpaid public officials, volunteers and those who work on a fee basis.
  • Definitions describing job classification types shown are available in the Census Bureau’s classification manual, beginning on page 373.
  • Payroll amounts, which cover only the month of March 2014, reflect salaries, wages, fees, commissions and overtime before withholdings. They do not include health insurance, retirement and other benefits.