How Much Should a Government Employee Make?

On his inaugural spin on the Sunday talk show circuit, Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts called for a freeze on federal-employee pay, which he said was twice that of private-sector counterparts. It was an issue he campaigned on as a way to bring government spending under control. "Lavish pay and benefit packages have unfortunately become a way of life for public employees," he said at an event in January. "It's time to bring fiscal sanity to Washington. I support a temporary freeze on federal wages until the Congress devises a plan to control spending and debt."

The obsession with government-employee pay is surfacing at the state and city levels as well. Colorado Springs is cutting services in the face of mounting budget deficits. Tax increases can only be approved by referendum, and residents recently voted one down. In November, a city councilman proposed reducing employee pay. A local business leader named Stephen Bartolin has criticized a city employee pay and benefits package that he said amounted to more than $80,000 a person, compared to the mere $24,000 Bartolin pays his employees. It's not clear if the positions are comparable -- he runs a resort and benefits from being able to hire seasonal and part-time employees. Now the idea that Colorado Springs pays its city employees too well has emerged as the "other side" in the debate. The vice mayor has stepped up to defend the city pay as in line with that of other municipalities.

The hand-wringing over how much government employees are paid is perennial. It trades on the image of a nameless bureaucrat stamping papers in an office bloated with redundant, union-protected workers who do very little work for great pay and too many holidays. That competency and talent are as important in the public sphere -- remember Michael Brown at FEMA? -- as they are in the private sector is often forgotten. Because the government employs a wide-range of workers, wholesale comparisons between government and private-sector workers are often unfair. Moreover, they're usually not even accurate.

Which is why PolitiFact was surprised by Scott Brown's claims, which after fact-checking, proved false. Brown used Cato Institute numbers that put the average federal employee's salary at $79,197, compared to $50,028 in the private sector. It's easy to tell right away that those salaries aren't double, contrary to Brown's claim on This Week on Jan. 31, but PolitiFact did even more digging.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers put average federal wages at $68,740, while private-sector wages averaged out at $42,270. The disparity is still there, in part because the nation's overall work force skews more toward blue-collar jobs than does the federal government. But $68,000 sounds less "lavish" than "respectable." Whether a worker makes more or less in the public sphere depends a lot on what job he or she is doing: Nurses make more, and petroleum engineers make less. Cashiers in government jobs make a lot more, $34,000, than the $18,000 of their private-sector counterparts.

But where can anyone easily live on $18,000 a year? It's below the federal poverty line for a family of three, and even a two-wage-earner household, with both adults making that salary, would be struggling well below the national median household income of $50,000. Conservatives argue that, especially in a bad economy, everyone should suffer equally. But why should we advocate anyone suffering at all?

Morgan Warstler recently posted on Andrew Breitbart's Big Government blog that, to "fix" the budget, the government should cut federal employee wages by 20 percent because, "it is time for government workers to share our pain and get their interests aligned with ours." He also argues, without explanation, that government employees would eventually make more money as a result. Presumably he means they'll make more when they can snag the private-sector jobs created when savings from government wage cuts go to tax credits for businesses. So, he seems to simultaneously argue that federal employees are paid too well and that those employees would ultimately make more in the private sector. "Real jobs," he calls them, "the kind that don't have the dirty taint of government on them."

Which is really the point; conservatives don't believe the government should have many employees at all. That argument might be picking up steam because it's coupled with rhetoric that the government is expanding -- with the stimulus, bank bailouts, and health reform. It also probably helps that much of the anti-government rhetoric in the Republican Party is now aimed at voters in the South, where many of the states are among the nation's poorest and median incomes fall below the national average.

So what about Warstler's claim that cutting federal-employee wages by 20 percent would save the government so much money? (Incidentally, I don't know of any work force that would tolerate an overnight cut in the wages they agreed to work at by one-fifth.) Total compensation in the 2011 budget for employees is about $457 billion, including military personnel and benefits, and represents about 12 percent of the budget. It's clearly not where the bulk of our money is going; that would be defense spending.

And while conservatives like to gripe that government jobs don't inspire innovation in their workers, they don't like to point out how many private-sector jobs are spurred by government spending. It's hard to ignore that the Department of Defense gives a lot of money to Lockheed Martin, the third largest employer in Colorado Springs. So, government employees -- at the city or federal level -- are problematic, but employees whose jobs would not exist without government money are fine.

The hostility to government workers also fits into a larger conservative narrative that arose during the bank bailouts of Obama as a socialist who just wanted to spread the wealth. Letting the banks fail would have caused a lot of pain to the working class, which might have lost paychecks along with tax dollars, but that's beside the point for conservatives. Loss is already socialized, but wealth can't be. The wealthiest, of course, always deserve what they earn. The federal government -- with its steady pay structure, good benefits, and somewhat even playing field for promotions -- runs counter to the Republican idea that a system in which the wealthiest rise leaving the lowest earners behind is better for all.

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