Lisa Levenstein on Balancing Budgets and Public Employees

The recent events concerning public sector workers in Wisconsin have brought a great deal of reflecting and attention to the ways in which the government, at both the state and national levels, spends and saves money. UNC Press author Lisa Levenstein, with economics doctoral student Jason Brent, wrote an Op-ed in this past Sunday’s Greensboro News & Record on the spending mistakes the government makes across the board, and how public workers have already taken a hard-enough hit from such legislation. Levenstein is author of A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia, which looks at the ways in which government programming and institutions like welfare, public housing, education, and the legal system worked against a group of women who were blamed for what was ultimately failure on the part of social policies.

Here is an excerpt from the Op-ed that gets to the root of the problem with the legislation in Wisconsin:

It is time to stop looking for scapegoats and face the facts. We confront our current crisis because during relatively flush economic times almost all states – and the federal government – maintained deficits, often opting to lower tax rates (mostly for wealthy households and corporations) rather than attempting to generate surpluses. Beginning in December 2007, our economy entered what became the longest and deepest recession since World War II, with more than 8 million jobs lost and huge slumps in capital gains, housing, and retail sales, resulting in a historic decline in revenues for all levels of government. For the first time in generations state tax revenue declined for five consecutive quarters through 2008-9 and now stands at 12 percent below pre-recession levels when adjusted for inflation. We are where we are not because of the costs of maintaining a strong public sector but because we did not collect revenue and save when we should have, and then unforeseeably bad times hit.

But, given that it is too late to go back and save now, what do we do? Those who argue for massive cuts to the public sector point out that with so many other workers hurting, it is only fair for public employees to share the pain. But they have already suffered. Since mid-2008, state and local governments have cut 400,000 jobs, forcing 45 states to cut services including health care, care for the elderly and disabled, and education from kindergarten through college.

The idea that public sector workers earn inflated wages is simply not true. Indeed, since World War II, one of the primary attractions of public sector employment has not been its high pay but its promise of job security. Generations of fire fighters, teachers, police officers, and social workers looked on during good economic times as their wages fell well behind private sector workers with similar levels of skill and training. It was a tradeoff they made because they knew they had secure jobs. If we follow the Republican agenda and insist that public sector jobs should carry the same risk of layoff and cutbacks as those in the private sector, how can we expect young talented people to even consider teaching our children or keeping us safe? A public sector that offers all of the risks and none of the rewards of the private sector would hurt us all.

The article is not available online from the News & Record, but Levenstein has provided the full text to us, which you can read in PDF here.