Demonizing the public sector harms the middle class

Democrats are at their best when they promote the creation of good jobs that enable working people to support a family. They have their work cut out for them: with persistently high unemployment, companies boast that they can now hire highly productive workers at a lower wage with fewer benefits. It’s no wonder that corporate profits are up 44 percent while working people have yet to benefit from the expansion. Economic growth on these terms erodes the middle class and threatens to split the nation between the wealthy and everyone else. With midterm and gubernatorial elections on the horizon, voters recognize that this is the wrong direction for the country.

Despite the evident pain and political discontent caused by the disappearance of good jobs, we hear growing calls to put the same destructive dynamic that’s destroying the private sector middle class into motion in the public sector. Although the best research indicates that city and state employees nationwide earn less in pay and benefits than similarly-situated private sector workers, critics complain that the quality of public sector jobs may not be deteriorating as quickly as it is in the private sector. They point out that states and cities could operate more cheaply if they turned public jobs into the same type of contingent, no-benefits, low-paid work that’s eating away at the private sector middle class. Privatization and outsourcing are means to the same end.

But trashing our middle class in an effort to cut costs is short sighted. Downgrading the middle-class pay and benefits of public workers only speeds their erosion in the private sector, undermining everyone who works for a living. Democrats who sign on to this agenda are betraying their own values: rather than parroting conservative talking points, they should be working to rebuild job standards in the private sector, throwing their weight behind grassroots efforts to expand living wage laws and guarantee paid sick days to workers in cities and states nationwide. Rather than attacking public pensions that afford retirees a middle-class standard of living, they should be thinking about how to increase retirement security for millions of private sector employees with meager savings.

Buying into the attack on public workers undercuts the economy more broadly. The Economic Policy Institute calculates that for every 100 public sector layoffs, 30 private sector jobs are lost, primarily because the former public workers no longer have the incomes to support local businesses. In contrast, promoting middle-class jobs in both the public and private sectors creates the economic demand necessary for growth. As economists point out, there are few other sources of this demand in our economy today.

It’s easy to lose sight of the other ways that a strong public sector supports our economy. Middle class Americans and the businesses they work for rely on good schools, clean and safe streets, and high quality public services and infrastructure. In so doing, they depend on the dedicated teachers, police, firefighters, librarians, sanitation workers, parks employees, and support staff that keep states and cities running.

States and cities face very real fiscal challenges, but the cause is falling tax revenue due to the deepest recession in decades -- not excessive spending or lavish compensation for public workers. What’s more, these fiscal difficulties pale in comparison to the challenges faced by Americans struggling to make ends meet, work their way into the middle class, or just hang on to what they’ve got. Their plight is the nation’s real economic crisis, and they deserve far more in terms of policy solutions than either party has offered.

Amy Traub is director of research at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan think tank focused on advancing progressive policy in cities and for cities.