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Right-Wingers Using Public Employees as 21st-Century Welfare Queens

The image of the overpaid public sector worker with fat retirement benefits offers a compelling storyline for the Right. But it's a complete fabrication.

The nation’s public employees educate our kids, fight our fires, make sure our food isn’t tainted with toxic crap, provide services to the neediest and perform a thousand other vital tasks the private sector has no incentive to do. They earn less, on average, than their private-sector counterparts with similar qualifications. None become billionaires.

But the government doesn’t engage in the kind of ruthless and relentless union-busting that corporate America has employed to make it virtually impossible for private sector workers to organize. That explains, in part, why public workers toil in the last sector of the U.S. economy where employees enjoy some job security, decent health care and the prospect of a dignified retirement.

Now, the corporate Right has public sector workers in its cross-hairs. A viral email making the rounds in Tea Party circles sums up the charge, describing a dark conspiracy among “stinking, filthy libs” to use masses of sallow government bureaucrats to undermine America’s “capitalistic, independent, rugged individualists and entrepreneurs”:

[Government workers] are supported 100% by the American taxpayers employed in the private profit producing sector [sic]. None of the gov. offices produce one red cent in profit--they are all parasites. Every 100 gainfully employed American tax payers supports 6.5 gov. employees 100% [sic].

Jonathan Cohn, writing in the New Republic , calls public employees, “the new welfare queens,” an easy target for the Right’s politics of resentment. And the comparison is apt. Just as there were no doubt a few welfare recipients gaming the system and living the high-life, a very small number of public sector employees -- mostly the cops and firefighters to whom politicos don’t dare say no -- have won lavish retirement packages. That small group of rather specialized workers is being held up as an example of both the perfidy of “big government” and the unbridled greed of public-sector unions.

It’s a classic example of analysis-by-anecdote. The Sacramento Bee publishes a list of the highest paid state workers in California. It’s a source of great outrage, with some state Highway Patrol commanders making over a quarter million dollars per year, and it feeds into the simple-to-digest narrative that public employees in the Golden State are ridiculously overcompensated. But those senior Highway Patrol officers aren’t typical, and the narrative isn’t true; a recent study by the University of California’s Center on Wage and Employment dynamics found that California’s state workers make 7 percent less in wages than similar workers in the private sector, but their benefits are a bit better ( PDF). The researchers concluded there is "no significant difference" between the two groups when both wages and benefits are factored in.

Economist Dean Baker notes that the average pension for a public employee was $22,000 a year in 2007, and adds that because many aren’t eligible for Social Security, those pensions (and whatever employees may have socked away over the course of their careers) are the only thing standing between them and the breadline. According to Baker, “the idea that we have a whole class of public employees enjoying plush retirements is nonsense that can be readily dismissed with a quick look at the data.” He dismisses the Right’s latest attack as nothing more than “a sleazy case of scapegoating that is intended to divert people's attention from the real villains in this economy.”

Here’s the kernel of truth on which that “sleazy case of scapegoating” is built: Federal employees make, on average, 20 percent more in wages than their private sector counterparts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economist John Schmitt also found that state and local employees earn about 13 percent more. Both enjoy greater average retirement and health benefits than private sector workers.

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