Government Employment

Who works for the government? A heck of a lot of us do! Actually it is very difficult to pin down government employment. Often, the government, while announcing a cutback in employment at a government agency, is at that very moment, hiring contractor personnel to replace the direct employees -- at a greater cost, of course. Consider a large contractor that, say, constructs highways for the government. The state can either hire people and buy machines to build roads or it can contract for roads. If it chooses to contract, would you consider the employees of the contractor to be government employees? They only do government work.

So, it is a difficult task trying to determine how many people actually are doing government work. I would like to use the criteria that if the work being done is ultimately for the government, then the people doing the work are government employees. This seems to be the only way to get a handle on how many people actually work for the government.

But what about people working for a private firm but doing tasks that are necessary due to government regulations -- such as filling out government reports and forms? I suppose we will not count them but maybe we should.

First I would like to present a chart showing the growth of direct government employees. The chart displays graphs of the Postal Service employees, the DOD civilian employees, the rest of the US government civilian employees, and the total (the yellow line). Note that DOD civilian employees is starting to down turn as the military has since the end of the "Cold War". The down turn is very sluggish compared to the radical reduction in the size of the Soviet Union threat, but nevertheless, it is moving downward -- at the moment. Both the Postal Service and the Executive branch employees have a slight upward trend. But the dramatic change is the "State and Local" count. There is a 5 to 1 increase since the end of WWII!

Several questions come to mind when you see these trends:
1) Where does the states get the money for supporting all those employees?
2) Are there "hidden" Federal employees?
3) Why haven't computers made employees more efficient?
4) What is the breakdown of all these state and local employees?
5) What percentage of the population are government employees?

I will examine Question #1 in the following section. Question #2 will also be addressed in a following section.

Question #3 cannot be answered precisely but is posed to emphasize that employee growth is not impacted by technology or other "cost savings" scams promoted by the government. The next time you hear a spokesman for the government promoting or trying to justify a large expenditure for computers and such as a means of saving taxpayer's money, remember this chart. The chart shows that there has been no reduction in employees even though in most operations computers can reduce the workload by 10 to 1 or even 100 to 1. Consider how many employees the Census bureau or the IRS would need to do the work they do if they had no computers.

Question #4 will be examined in a later section.

So, that leaves us with Question #5, "What percentage of the population are government employees?". Here I have included a chart showing the total government civilian employees (includes DOD and Post Office) per 1,000 population.

Again, I must caution you that even this data does not really paint a true picture of government employment. The chart is simply the officially reported information on direct government employees. There are hundreds of thousands more of contract employees that do government work but are not government employees. There are also many thousands who are employed by "semi-government" agencies. Information on these counts is very difficult to come by, but as I can determine the facts I will add it to this essay.

The good news is that the growth of direct federal employees as a percentage of the general population is actually declining (not nearly as much as it should be of course). The bad news is the state and local direct employee count is growing far more rapidly than the general population. If you add the two together along with the military, you see that the total is nearly 10 per cent of the population (see next chart). While not as bad as some countries, it still seems a little strange that one tenth of the population is necessary to provide the very limited services that most of us receive from the government -- especially with all that sophisticated equipment they have purchased!

The third chart shows the total government direct employee growth: federal civilian, military, and "state and local". This is an important chart because it is difficult to keep track of the various maneuvers the government does with its programs. For instance, it will cutback on some federal program and tout to the news media how they are slashing government employees and expenditures. The truth is, the project has been simply transferred to "state and local" (it goes the other way too: the feds have been getting more involved in police activity, for instance). But the total gives us the "bottom line" and that is the total is growing faster than the population! (Again, it is apparent that all of our investment in computers, communications, and other technology is not helping to keep the count down.)

Leon Felkins

Copyright © 1996 Leon Felkins
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