But what this hyperbolic rhetoric ignores is that local government has been on a decades long hiring boom and that we currently have historically high ratios of public safety workers like cops and firefighters to the population at large, as the chart below suggests. Something similar has been going on with teacher hiring, as the chart on the next page shows.
Our police forces, for instance, went on big hiring sprees starting in the early 1990s, as data from the U.S. Census annual survey of state and local hiring, which has good numbers back to 1993, shows. Since that time, the number of cops employed by state and local government increased by 29 percent, compared to a 19 percent gain in the population in general. That's one part of the story. The other is that in that time, police departments have also grown far more effective at deploying their resources to fight crime, which has led to historic drops in crime. New York City, for instance, built its police force up to about 40,000 members by the late 1990s, then because of budget constraints began cutting back the force starting in the early part of the next decade. The NYPD has reduced its headcount to between 35,000 and 36,000 but still driven down crime an additional 20 percent to 25 percent.
Would that we had gotten a similar payoff from our investment in education. Since the 1950s, as the data below from the National Center for Education Statistics show, we've been driving down the ratio of students to teachers in American public school systems, from about 25 to 1 to the current 15 to 1. We've done that by making a big investment in our schools. In 2008 dollars, spending per pupil on public schools has soared from $2,800 in the early 1960s to $10,441, a robust real gain in spending. Unfortunately, test scores haven't improved significantly, too. But as the numbers suggest, we need hardly expect a massive drop off in public services considering how much our public service work forces grew before the so-called Great Recession began.