It’s of course good news that unemployment among workers in private industry has been steadily declining. But that comes along with the bad news that unemployment among public employees has been growing – and with it a decline in vital government services.
A new report in the New York Times has made that very clear. Reporters Shaila Dewan and Motoko Rich noted that government payrolls grew in the early part of the recovery from the Great Recession in 2009, mainly because of federal stimulus measures. But they said that since then, “the public sector has shrunk by 706,000 jobs. The losses appeared to be tapering off earlier this year, but have accelerated for the last three months, creating the single biggest drag on the recovery in many areas.”
Albeit slowly, the economy generally has been improving, with state tax revenues expected to go beyond pre-recession levels by next year. Yet the Times’ reported that “governors and legislatures are keeping a tight rein on spending, whether to refill depleted rainy day funds or because of political inclination.”
Holding tight won’t be easy, with the costs of health care, social services, education and employee pensions steadily rising, and property taxes and other tax revenues steadily shrinking. More than a dozen states have tried to do it by trimming their aid to local governments. And that will undoubtedly lead to more public worker layoffs, more unemployment and more reductions in important public services.
Local governments already have been making budget cuts that far outweigh the slight economic relief that’s come with a recent growth in state and federal jobs. It’s certain to worsen, since more than 25 percent of municipalities are planning layoffs this year.
President Obama has proposed easing the financial plight of states and their employees by providing $30 billion more for teachers, police officers and firefighters. Such aid is essential if public services – and the compensation of those who provide them – are to be maintained at a significant yet reasonable level.
Predictably, the conservatives who don’t really care for government are in a snit over Obama’s proposal. The Times quoted Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, as complaining that the additional public sector jobs “must be paid for with more debt and taxes borne by the private sector.”
Now, isn’t that a revelation! Imagine that, people taxing themselves and hiring people to provide services they and everyone else needs if they are to live a decent life, if they are to find meaningful work.
We need more, not less government, and we can provide it by employing for reasonable compensation many of the millions of Americans now suffering from unemployment. We need to open more government jobs for them so they may help provide essential services.
The lack of sufficient public workers, as the Times said, “can mean longer response times to fires, larger class sizes, and in some cases lawsuits when short-staffed agencies are unable to provide the required services.”
The Times quoted Mike Whited, president of the firefighters union local in Muncie, Ind., who said the area which could be reached within eight minutes after an alarm was sounded was cut in half.
The Times said, “Mr. Whited chafed at portrayals of public workers as overpaid or greedy, saying his union and others had made concessions, including paying more for their health insurance and forfeiting raises. I think a lot of people don’t understand what we do. They’re looking for somebody to blame, and I think they’re being led the wrong way.”
One of the hardest hit cities, Trenton, New Jersey, has laid off fully one-third of its police force, hundreds of school district workers and at least 150 other public employees, and now faces loss of 60 more firefighters.
More than half the job losses in local governments have come in education. Thousands of teachers have been laid off throughout the country, and thousands more are being threatened with layoffs.
Many teachers have agreed to help ease their school districts financial problems by taking unpaid “furlough days” or agreeing to less pay and benefits than they had sought or had been granted in contract negotiations.
The widespread teacher layoffs have nevertheless continued. In Cleveland, for instance, more than 500 teachers were laid off this spring because of a claimed $66 million budget shortfall. That came after two years of cutbacks and $25 million in concessions, teachers union leader David Quolke told the Times’ reporters.
One consequence: Some classes will have more than 40 students, a serious hardship on students and teachers alike.
Relatively large teacher layoffs and cuts in public jobs and services generally have hit every state hard, including the largest, wealthiest and most influential states. In California, for example, Gov. Jerry Brown is threatening to eliminate 15,000 state jobs.
The Times said Pennsylvania “has shed 5,400 government jobs this year, and many school districts and social service agencies are contemplating more layoffs.”
Yes, it will take higher taxes and more public debt in Pennsylvania, California and everywhere else to combat the severe economic problems that have left millions of Americans without the jobs and public services they so badly need. But it’s a price we must pay.