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Too Many Federal Workers?

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By Allan Holmes September 7, 2010

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Over the weekend, Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in The Wall Street Journal about the differences between private and public sector workers. She sketches out the history of unions in the federal government and what she concludes as a rather obvious point: If we just had fewer government workers, we would spend less on paying them.

She writes:

Another factor leading to the rise of the public unions is the decade-over-decade increase in the size of government. Not only through the New Deal, but also through the 1950s and onward the number of workers in the public sector grew. By 1962 they represented an eighth of the national work force. If we did not have so many government employees today, the cost of sustaining them would not be so high.

Here is the number of federal employees by decade (in millions and excluding U.S. Postal workers), as listed by the Office of Personnel Management:

1940 0.70

1950 1.44

1960 1.81

1970 2.20

1980 2.16

1990 2.25

2000 1.78

2009 2.10

There were fewer federal workers in 2009 than in 1990, 1980 and 1970. Now take a closer look at the OPM table. Much of the growth, understandably, occurred in Homeland Security agencies, increasing from 70,000 to 180,000 - a jump of 110,000. Justice Department jobs went from 98,000 to 113,000 -- more than 15,000 new jobs added. (Again, crime and more Homeland Security related.) Jobs at the Veterans Department increased from 220,000 to 297,000 -- that's 77,000 more federal workers. Again, a result of Homeland Security, or rather staffing up to take care of thousands of veterans coming home from two wars. And there's a lot of information technology jobs in there.

So, taking those three areas, the number of new jobs created in the last 10 years, which can be traced back to 9/11, was 202,000. That by itself accounts for nearly two-thirds of the total federal workforce growth from 2000 to 2009, which was 316,000 jobs. Hold those steady since 2002 (or even allow for some growth), and you would have less than 1.9 million workers in 2009, or slightly more. That's about the same number of federal workers in 1962, the year Shlaes chooses as her benchmark to compare the number of government jobs to the number in the private sector (with public sector jobs accounting for an eighth of all jobs). Remember, that was before the Great Society programs geared up, popular programs that needed a slew of federal managers and clerks to oversee.

By the way, the number of jobs at the Interior, Transportation and Treasury departments fell from 2000 to 2009. And those at Health and Human Services, Education and the Social Security Administration grew from 1.26 million to 1.39 million -- 130,000 jobs over 10 years, or about 13,000 new positions a year as the health industry expanded at a torrid pace.

It helps to understand what tax dollars are paying for so that people have some perspective of what they are buying - as in this case homeland security and wars. After 9/11, the public was demanding the federal government do something. It did -- and it took people to manage it. That puts much of the criticism leveled at the federal government into perspective.

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