The New York Times weighed in with a story yesterday that repeats a theme we've heard semi-regularly since government-worker layoffs started in earnest two years ago, namely that the downsizing of state and local government is having a disproportionate impact on the economic fortunes of blacks because they are overly represented in government jobs. The Times even quotes someone saying that the impact is so great we should pause and consider it before further layoffs.
Yet the Times' story, repeating a theme that even some fiscal conservatives have echoed, is short on facts and ignores the actual government data on public sector employment, which shows something quite different. In fact, it is whites who are more significantly overrepresented in government relative to their position in the broader population, and it is whites who have absorbed the brunt of government layoffs. To understand how the numbers work and what the Times and others ignore, read on.
The crucial database here consists of labor force statistics from the current population survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These quarterly numbers are more detailed than the monthly employment releases from BLS, and they include actual statistics on government employment by race, so there's no need to speculate or try to extrapolate what's actually happening. At the end of each year the BLS rolls the quarterly data into an annual average which provides a historical benchmark to compare to current data.
Here's what the CPS shows. As of the third quarter of this year, there were slightly under 20 million government jobs in America. Of that number, 15.86 million (or 79 percent of all government jobs, to be precise) were held by white workers. Some 2.87 million jobs, or 14.3 percent of the total, were held by blacks.
These numbers are no shock when you consider that whites make up some 73 percent of the nation's population and 82 percent of the nation's workforce, and blacks compose 12.3 percent of the population and 11 percent of the total workforce. In other words, both groups are slightly overrepresented within the government sphere relative to their overall population, because Hispanics and Asians are underrepresented in government employment. But blacks hardly rely on government employment to any extraordinary degree beyond white workers. Four out of five black workers work in the private sector.
Now to the downsizing. The CPS peak of government employment
occurred at 21.26 million workers in 2008. So since then we are down some 1.27
million positions. The peak for white employment was 16.8 million, and the
decline comes to just under a million positions. Government positions held by
blacks peaked at 3.1 million, and the decline is now about 240,000 jobs. The
decline in jobs held by whites, in other words, accounts for 77 percent of all
government jobs losses, and by blacks equals 18 percent of all job losses.
The Times tries to up the ante in this story by suggesting that government employment is a crucial road to the middle class for blacks. This is another common theme generally unsupported by convincing data. For one thing, there is no accepted government definition of what constitutes the middle class, and the Times is incredibly ambiguous, not defining what it means by the middle class. That makes it impossible to test the Times' conclusion on its own terms.
A website called blackdemographics.com tracks black household stats by broad income categories. You can judge for yourself which are middle class categories, but the data includes three income groups that bear on this conversation. According to the site, 28.8 percent of black households are in the $15,000 to $34,999 a year income classification, another 38.4 percent are in the $35,000 to $99,999 category, and 8.1 percent fall into the $100,000 to $199,999 range. It's likely that the vast majority of government workers also fit into one of these three categories, given that government jobs range from upper middle income positions like school principal and high-ranking public safety officer on the one hand, and unskilled labor like general maintenance on the other hand. These categories, which exclude those in poverty and those we would consider rich, consist of nearly 11 million black households. Given that there are fewer than 3 million black government workers, by contrast, it's unlikely that government employment has anything like the disproportionate impact on black aspirations to the middle class that is often claimed.
I'm sure you could construct a narrower definition of what constitutes the middle class, since the actual definition is so fluid and arbitrary. But the above numbers are crucial because the implication behind stories like the one in the Times, suggesting that perhaps we should avoid downsizing government so as not to harm the black middle class, ignores the fact that the only way to stop government from shrinking when the private economy is contracting is by taxing the resources of the private sector more heavily. Such stories make their case by conveniently ignoring that 80 percent of black workers work for the private sector and many are working class residents and mid-range white collar workers in the private economy who would be hit by such taxes.
The real threat to the black middle class is not government downsizing, but a continuing stagnation of America's private economy accompanied by an increasing government burden on private workers at this crucial time in our attempts to recover.