Not long after Trump’s childish government shutdown ended, The Washington Post ran an article debunking five “myths” about the federal workforce.
The first myth on the list may be the most pernicious: that government workers earn more than their private-sector counterparts. As the article pointed out, this isn’t true if you are comparing apples to apples. Although workers with only a high-school diploma make slightly more if they work for the government, workers with professional degrees make somewhat less. But overall salary comparisons aren’t useful,
because “federal workers tend to be older, more educated, and more concentrated in professional occupations than private-sector workers,” according to the Congressional Budget Office. There are also comparatively few part-time workers in the government.
Other misconceptions included the belief that most people who work for the federal government are located in Washington, D.C. and don’t “rub elbows” with “real Americans”(actually, only about 1 in 6 federal employees work in D.C.), the belief that government is shrinking (actually, thanks to privatization, it has grown), the belief that private enterprises can deliver services at a lower cost than government (The Project on Government Oversight says that “the government pays billions more annually in taxpayer dollars to hire contractors than it would to hire federal employees to perform comparable services.”), and that it is virtually impossible to fire non-performing government employees (federal employees are fired all the time, although they do have more rights than private-sector employees, who basically don’t have any.)
The linked article includes data supporting each of its corrections, and it’s worth clicking through and reading it in its entirety, but I think the more interesting question involves the reason for these widely-held misconceptions.
I think it comes down to Americans’ ambivalence about government.
A persistent anti-government bias is a long-standing feature of American culture. Reagan’s famous quip that “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you” is met with fear resonated with so many voters because skepticism about government is “baked in” to the American worldview.
Ironically, however, when most Americans are concerned about a problem, whether local or national, their first impulse is to insist that government solve it.
In a rational world (and yes, I know we don’t inhabit such a world), we would launch a national discussion about what it is we believe government should–and shouldn’t–do.
(Unfortunately, thanks to our deficit of civic literacy, most Americans don’t understand that the answer to the the question “what shouldn’t government do?” is found in the Bill of Rights. As I tell my students, the Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government is forbidden to do.)
If we could hold such a national conversation, we might come to some agreement about what we expect government in the 21st Century to do–inspect the food supply, keep airplanes from crashing into each other, protect us from criminals and so forth. We might also reinforce understanding of things government has no business deciding–what we read, who we love, whether and how we procreate or pray.
The lesson we should have learned from the government shutdown is that Trump and his abysmal Cabinet are–thankfully– a very small part of the federal government. Despite their incompetence, thousands of people in government’s much-maligned workforce go to their jobs every day to ensure that government functions as expected. They aren’t perfect, and the incompetence at the top does do considerable damage, but without them, we’d be up that proverbial creek without a paddle. And the creek would be polluted.
Perhaps if Americans had a common understanding of the pesky facts about what government employees do every day, we would be less likely to sneer at “government work.”