Bob Pollin Busts The Overpaid Public Employee Lie

Isaiah J. Poole

It keeps getting recited as if it is holy writ: Public sector employees have better pay and benefits than private sector employees. And with that belief firmly planted in the public mind, private sector workers who have seen their own wages and benefits eroded willingly join the right-wing anti-public-worker bandwagon, demanding that public workers suffer the same losses that they have.

But public sector workers in fact are not paid as well as similarly skilled private sector workers—not in Wisconsin, not in Washington, not anywhere in the country, as Robert Pollin, a director at the Political Economy Research Institute, points out in this interview with The Real News Network. Pollin is scheduled to be one of the presenters at The Summit on Jobs and America’s Future that the Campaign for America’s Future is sponsoring March 10 in Washington.

“When you measure the actual pay levels and you control for people’s ages and educational levels, public sector workers make less on average than people in the private sector,” Pollin says. “Indeed, in Wisconsin, public sector workers on average, after you control properly, make about 8 percent less than private sector workers.”

The Economic Policy Institute released a paper last week reaching a similar conclusion. “When we compare apples to apples, we find that Wisconsin public employees earn 4.8% less in total compensation than comparable private sector workers,” said a report written by Jeffrey H. Keefe. “The comparisons—controlling for education, experience, hours of work, organizational size, gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship, and disability—demonstrate that full-time state and local public employees earn lower wages and receive less in total compensation (including all benefits) than comparable private sector employees.”

EPI has come to similar conclusions about state workers in Ohio, New Jersey and Indiana.

In this interview, Pollin also proposes a solution for sagging state finances: the return of federal revenue sharing. The federal government apportioned part of its revenue to state and local governments from 1972 until 1987, when conservatives under President Reagan successfully turned off that spigot. At the time, conservatives touted the virtues of block grants that would be more efficient and better targeted.

Now, of course, congressional conservatives are looking to eliminate or sharply curtail block grants. Pollin argues that federal policy should move sharply in the other direction. (For a time, in fact, it did, when the Recovery Act poured billions of dollars into state coffers, forestalling state-level program cuts and firings.) “The mere fact of the Wisconsin workers accepting pay cuts, regardless of whether that’s shared sacrifice or not, is actually going to make the recession worse.” Pollin says. “It has to, because it’s withdrawing spending from the economy. And what we actually need to get out of the recession is more spending.”

Since states are bound to keep their annual operating budgets balanced, Pollin favors the federal government stepping in to help states lower unemployment and give them time to enact rational policies to stabilize their finances.

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