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. 

Public Employee Payroll Costs

State State/Local FTE Employment State/Local FTEs Per 10K Pop. State Gov. FTE Employment State FTEs Per 10K Pop.
Indiana 131,762 200 30,223 46
Illinois 264,211 205 63,199 49
Ohio 262,318 226 63,627 55
Florida 424,961 213 111,102 56
Wisconsin 114,565 199 33,321 58
California 883,408 228 235,973 61
Nevada 53,690 189 17,733 62
Arizona 128,803 191 42,076 63
Colorado 129,933 243 33,785 63
Texas 562,650 209 176,444 65
Tennessee 154,624 236 42,860 65
Michigan 182,391 184 67,024 68
Georgia 217,872 216 68,463 68
Minnesota 121,740 223 41,586 76
Pennsylvania 257,459 201 98,791 77
North Carolina 258,933 260 79,085 80
Virginia 188,522 226 68,072 82
Iowa 73,089 235 25,907 83
New Hampshire 27,843 210 11,402 86
Idaho 37,040 227 14,195 87
Washington 183,248 259 64,039 91
Alabama 138,758 286 44,045 91
New York 623,162 316 179,785 91
South Carolina 123,451 256 44,381 92
Missouri 145,324 240 55,890 92
Massachusetts 139,429 206 63,417 94
Oklahoma 89,707 231 36,454 94
Kansas 79,087 272 27,301 94
Utah 63,422 215 27,985 95
Maryland 133,946 224 56,906 95
Louisiana 132,113 284 45,288 97
South Dakota 19,318 226 8,552 100
Kentucky 97,173 220 44,292 100
New Jersey 205,211 230 89,732 100
Maine 28,649 215 13,424 101
Nebraska 54,527 290 19,067 101
Oregon 95,290 240 42,360 107
Connecticut 75,782 211 41,355 115
Rhode Island 21,981 208 12,379 117
Arkansas 71,048 239 35,172 119
Mississippi 91,036 304 35,782 120
Montana 26,872 263 12,817 125
New Mexico 55,987 268 26,646 128
North Dakota 20,404 276 9,936 134
West Virginia 44,645 241 24,917 135
Vermont 14,680 234 9,132 146
Hawaii 37,583 265 21,072 148
Wyoming 26,073 446 9,340 160
Delaware 23,721 253 17,806 190
Alaska 28,858 392 18,057 245

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 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.

Education

State State/Local Gov. Monthly Payroll Annual Personal Income Monthly Payroll Per $100K Personal Income
Wyoming $115,650,749 $31,885,231,000 $363
Alaska $165,952,808 $39,792,685,000 $417
New York $3,674,256,030 $1,098,102,853,000 $335
Mississippi $304,663,786 $103,090,592,000 $296
Nebraska $234,199,369 $89,478,670,000 $262
Alabama $507,946,482 $181,908,767,000 $279
Louisiana $502,288,103 $195,426,167,000 $257
North Dakota $83,515,413 $41,264,895,000 $202
Kansas $313,310,729 $130,364,095,000 $240
New Mexico $225,054,616 $77,356,150,000 $291
Hawaii $177,273,318 $65,347,949,000 $271
Montana $106,331,590 $40,843,525,000 $260
North Carolina $1,075,996,703 $389,512,571,000 $276
Washington $1,044,208,466 $350,321,729,000 $298
South Carolina $457,344,066 $177,242,275,000 $258
Delaware $99,332,928 $43,391,982,000 $229
Colorado $641,167,564 $261,735,447,000 $245
West Virginia $137,165,251 $66,856,850,000 $205
Oregon $481,219,062 $163,652,836,000 $294
Missouri $513,518,555 $252,482,438,000 $203
Arkansas $237,090,347 $112,076,107,000 $212
Tennessee $583,414,506 $264,965,180,000 $220
Iowa $339,105,068 $139,624,515,000 $243
Vermont $66,573,031 $29,090,044,000 $229
Oklahoma $340,177,191 $169,227,826,000 $201
New Jersey $1,157,715,755 $515,020,298,000 $225
California $5,861,262,093 $1,939,527,656,000 $302
Idaho $154,951,483 $60,040,758,000 $258
South Dakota $71,502,474 $38,631,202,000 $185
Virginia $813,626,390 $419,184,911,000 $194
Ohio $1,139,772,407 $489,694,974,000 $233
Maryland $658,379,987 $323,778,035,000 $203
Minnesota $598,692,292 $267,389,243,000 $224
Kentucky $349,774,936 $165,044,051,000 $212
Georgia $745,885,693 $393,593,652,000 $190
Utah $257,971,133 $110,841,885,000 $233
Maine $115,136,478 $54,195,046,000 $212
Florida $1,881,415,633 $850,177,746,000 $221
Connecticut $452,756,521 $233,293,455,000 $194
New Hampshire $120,004,168 $70,020,358,000 $171
Texas $2,374,787,666 $1,231,084,591,000 $193
Rhode Island $116,665,327 $51,026,876,000 $229
Massachusetts $760,989,514 $396,205,941,000 $192
Illinois $1,412,967,476 $613,671,539,000 $230
Pennsylvania $1,151,798,487 $609,679,210,000 $189
Indiana $485,617,985 $261,092,396,000 $186
Wisconsin $513,480,812 $254,404,802,000 $202
Arizona $602,074,328 $255,092,928,000 $236
Nevada $297,737,543 $115,671,839,000 $257
Michigan $841,441,712 $403,726,369,000 $208

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. 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.

State Elementary-Secondary FTEs per 10K Elementary-Secondary Monthly Payroll Per $100K Personal Income Higher Ed FTEs per 10K Pop. Higher Ed Monthly Payroll Per $100K Personal Income
Alabama 206 $172 86 $106
Alaska 266 $224 77 $75
Arizona 162 $142 69 $88
Arkansas 233 $194 87 $103
California 163 $165 60 $74
Colorado 194 $148 84 $88
Connecticut 259 $201 52 $47
Delaware 182 $178 85 $95
Florida 174 $129 45 $52
Georgia 225 $195 60 $72
Hawaii 185 $162 77 $80
Idaho 197 $155 68 $72
Illinois 217 $206 64 $67
Indiana 197 $173 86 $94
Iowa 249 $202 97 $115
Kansas 296 $208 102 $106
Kentucky 242 $206 84 $105
Louisiana 216 $161 60 $63
Maine 260 $219 55 $58
Maryland 210 $199 67 $65
Massachusetts 232 $188 48 $43
Michigan 168 $171 89 $117
Minnesota 221 $188 67 $76
Mississippi 244 $200 89 $109
Missouri 219 $173 61 $64
Montana 213 $190 79 $78
Nebraska 253 $191 84 $72
Nevada 164 $163 33 $44
New Hampshire 272 $192 53 $52
New Jersey 248 $245 51 $54
New Mexico 226 $195 105 $132
New York 232 $219 42 $41
North Carolina 205 $167 84 $100
North Dakota 224 $149 115 $95
Ohio 206 $190 65 $73
Oklahoma 245 $160 74 $74
Oregon 156 $154 81 $99
Pennsylvania 187 $175 53 $62
Rhode Island 190 $205 51 $53
South Carolina 204 $187 65 $83
South Dakota 228 $158 73 $68
Tennessee 203 $163 53 $56
Texas 257 $196 65 $74
Utah 173 $160 82 $112
Vermont 317 $255 78 $93
Virginia 238 $180 70 $71
Washington 145 $139 76 $80
West Virginia 236 $224 76 $96
Wisconsin 200 $183 84 $96
Wyoming 321 $229 102 $78

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.  

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