The Majority Of People Employed By The Federal Government Aren’t Federal Employees

While ‘the size of the federal government’ is an eternal shibboleth, along with its cousin, the lazy federal employee, the majority of people employed by the federal government are private contractors, and not federal workers (boldface mine):

A new study on “The True Size of Government,” by Paul C. Light, professor of public service at New York University, says the government’s “blended” workforce is 7 to 9 million strong — including contractors and grantees…

Broken down, the 9 million included about 2 million employees, 3.7 million contractors, 1.6 million grant employees, 1.3 million active duty military personnel and 500,000 Postal Service employees in 2015. The 7 million excludes the Postal Service, which does not receive congressional appropriations for its operations, and the military….

“I suspect many taxpayers have no understanding that their tax dollars pay for 3.7 million private sector employees,” Reardon said. “The work of federal employees, on the other hand, is transparent and accountable.”

An important takeaway is “the study reminds us that the nation depends on a very large blended workforce that includes many more contract and grant employees than federal civil servants. It is easy to say the civil service is too big, but it is only part of the workforce needed to faithfully execute the laws,” Light said.

There’s an accountability issue as well:

But Light does raise a serious issue about the impact of so many non-employees.

“Although Washington’s blended workforce has an imperative role in the nation’s success, it may have grown so large and poorly sorted that it has become a threat to the very liberty it protects,” Light wrote. “With 7 to 9 million employees, the federal government’s blended workforce may have become too complicated and codependent to control.”

“I think we’ve gotten close to it,” he said later, adding the use of private security forces by the military as an example.

The threat to liberty, he explained, “comes from the pressure to maintain and expand missions that are primarily for the benefit of one or more parts of the blended workforce and not necessarily for the benefit of the public.”

Think private prisons. Commercial prison operators have a financial incentive to get and keep people locked up, deprived of their liberty.

Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, pointed to the IRS mandate to use private debt-collection agencies. “Twice this program has failed because of high cost and poor quality,” Reardon said, “yet Congress ignored the history and ordered a third attempt, knowing that highly trained federal employees are better equipped to collect the debts and uniquely authorized to provide assistance and options to low-income taxpayers.”

There’s one other thing the use of contractors obscures–Obama actually slashed the federally-funded workforce, despite Republican claims to the contrary:

One of the unknown — or overlooked — points in that debate, Light said, is that President Barack Obama “actually shrunk the true size of government quite dramatically.” From 2010 to 2015, the blended workforce dropped by more than 2 million people, from 11.3 million to 9.1 million, according to the study published by the Volcker Alliance.

This is “contrary to those in the Trump administration who have argued there was a ‘dramatic expansion in the federal workforce’ during the Obama administration,” the report says. It’s also contrary to the image of Ronald Reagan as a small-government president. In 1984, after his third year in office, the total workforce was almost 9.8 million people.

Yes, under Reagan the Republican, federally-funded workers expanded to about 8.7% of the work force, while during Obama’s presidency, the federally-funded workforce shrank to 5.8% of the workforce. Whether or not, that’s a good thing to do macroeconomically is a separate question, but Republicans have always been ‘big government spenders’, as long as military Lernerism, and military Lernerism alone is on the table. But contracting allows them to claim they’re shrinking government, even as they expand it.

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3 Responses to The Majority Of People Employed By The Federal Government Aren’t Federal Employees

  1. jonolan – Tall, dark, grim, and no longer handsome. I'm the stranger your parents warned you about.
    jonolan says:

    Yep. I’m actually one of those contractors and, while I like getting my taxdollars back as it were, it’s a messed up system from the ground up.

  2. If you count federal, state, and local, isn’t government the biggest employer in the U.S.?

  3. jonolan – Tall, dark, grim, and no longer handsome. I'm the stranger your parents warned you about.
    jonolan says:

    If memory serves me right, the federal government alone is the largest single employer in the US…and that’s discounting the contractors. They employ on average 1.94% of the total US workforce.

    But this is outweighed, if you look at it one way, by the collective States and localities employment figures – just under 4% and just under 10% respectively.

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