Conservative myths: The overpaid government worker

In a recent article in In These Times, Joyce Chen takes a look at popular conservative myth: the overpaid, lazy government worker. According to Chen, conservatives on the midterm campaign trail are characterizing civil servants “as shiftless paper-pushers fattened on your tax dollar.” The GOP intent is to drive a wedge between civil servants and private sector workers thus providing populist support for “shrinking” government and privatizing government functions. For example, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, a new up and coming star of the GOP, has been accusing public employees of making lavish wages and benefits while ordinary private sector workers are struggling with cutbacks and shrinking paychecks. He has promised to cut the number of New Jersey state workers, cut the remaining workers benefits and pensions, and privatize some state government operations. Right wing think tanks like the Manhattan Institute, also push the idea of the “spoiled” public sector worker. Chen cites recent studies, which debunk the charge that government workers make too much money.

An analysis of New England public employees by the Center for Economic Policy and Research and Political Economy Research Institute helps dispel the myth of the “spoiled” government worker. Researchers found that New England’s state and local workers are actually comparatively disadvantaged.  After taking into account variables like age and education level, “state and local workers actually earn less, on average, than their private-sector counterparts.”

While it’s true that the public workers in the study have higher average incomes, this is primarily due to their higher ages and educational credentials. All in all:

While low-wage workers in New England receive a small wage premium in state and local jobs (about 5 percent for a typical low-wage worker), the typical middle-wage worker earns about 3 percent less in state and local work, and the typical high-wage worker makes about 13 percent less than a similar private-sector worker.

The government workers do tend to have better benefits, like sick leave and health insurance. But the researchers explained, “Benefits offered by state and local governments are roughly as generous as those offered by large firms in the private sector” (presumably when they’re not busy laying people off in droves).

According to Chen, civil servant bashing is union bashing. She notes that union workers currently make up about 37 percent of the government workforce, more than five times the private-sector unionization rate. The modest advantages enjoyed by public sector workers, she points out, are the product of decades of labor-government struggle in which the unions pushed for benefits and pensions rather than higher salaries. The GOP is first and foremost against organized labor which is at the heart of their antipathy towards civil servants.

Chen says:

As a result of this [union] strategy, most public-sector workers—84 percent—still enjoy traditional, defined benefit pensions that, after their retirement, pay them a fixed amount every month. In comparison, 81 percent of private-sector employees now rely on defined contribution plans such as 401(k)s, where workers save a portion of their earnings (which may or may not be matched by their employers) and then upon retiring, receive a lump sum payment.

Much of that progress, unfortunately, now risks being squandered in a flurry of budget cuts or, as the Public Interest points out, an aggressive push toward privatization of public institutions.

According to Chen, economically devastated private sector workers will attack their kid’s teacher, the fireman, or a government clerk who has a pension, instead of questioning the unfair economic structures under which they live. Fox news and conservative media demonize civil servants to deflect attention away from the real danger for private sector workers: corporate behavior. It’s easier to attack a neighbor than deconstruct the myths you have been force fed. Conservative politicians will continue stir up populist anger against government workers and their unions to justify slashing government payrolls and privatizing government functions such as prisons, schools, and the military. An economically depressed electorate is looking for someone to blame, and the GOP and the anti-government religious right is there to offer the government and government workers as scapegoats. What to do?

What is needed is an articulate counter argument, that the ordinary working American’s enemy is not their neighbor who happens to have a government job and a real pension, but corporate power, which is a corrupting force in our economy, our government, and our society. Americans don’t understand how much the deck is stacked against them. Unfortunately, most Democrats are too beholden to corporations themselves to deliver that message.

Perhaps a true progressive presidential candidate will emerge in 2010 or 2012. But meanwhile, at Thanksgiving dinner, when your conservative uncle parrots GOP talking points (that government workers are lazy and make too much money) don’t just roll you eyes, surprise him, and everyone else at the table, with the facts.