The Right Wing Myth on Public Employee Pay
This week brings a surge of new data affirming that city and state employees are compensated less than comparable private sector workers. New studies, conducted by researchers at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Rutgers University, and the Economic Policy Institute delve into the specifics of public employee compensation in New England and nationwide. Their findings broadly confirm existing research indicating that when relevant workforce factors like education and experience are taken into account, public workers earn lower pay and benefits than those working in the private sector. The Economic Policy Institute’s new national study, for example, finds that full-time state and local employees make 3.7% less (accounting for pay, benefits and work hours) than similar private sector employees, on average. Looking just at the New England area, the PERI/CEPR economists find a 3% pay shortfall for public workers.
The data is strong and substantiated: the question is how much of an impact it will have on a public debate dominated by entrenched misperceptions about our public institutions and the people who work to clean our streets, keep us safe, and educate our children.
Simply put, the right wing has created such a powerful narrative demonizing “big government” and “big unions” that facts to the contrary will have great difficulty penetrating. Consider the online comments in reaction to a recent article about public workers by my colleague Dan Morris: his evidence-based statements are dismissed as outright lies because people “know” that government workers make twice as much as the rest of us. Like the conviction that undocumented immigrants somehow have access to generous welfare benefits, a belief that most public employees are paid far more than they’re worth – and therefore that public wages and pensions can be slashed dramatically without harming the quality of public services or the workforce more broadly – may prove durable despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.
Anonymous online comments are one thing: the real problem is that statements from major media figures and prominent politicians that fail to rise above their level. The political benefits of perpetuating the falsehood are high: Republicans can act as if city and state budget problems could be easily solved if only public unions (needless to say, a traditionally Democratic constituency) would give up their “unwarranted privileges” and compromise their members “lavish” benefits. Democrats, meanwhile, have the opportunity to appear especially tough-minded by attacking a weakened segment of their own base. By insisting that pay freezes, furloughs, and benefit cuts for sanitation workers and librarians will be painless and justified (since the conventional wisdom insists they never deserved their pensions anyway) both parties can deflect calls for greater public contributions from the wealthy individuals and profitable corporations that contribute most to their campaigns.
In reality, there is no pampered public sector elite to blame for public budget woes: elected officials should face the facts and admit to the sacrifices they’re asking working people to make.