In One Chart: Local-government employment in the U.S. is at a 19-year low


The number of people working in U.S. local government had barely recovered to its level before the 2008 Great Recession by November 2019 when the coronavirus pandemic hit a few months later. Now, with 13.7 million workers, it’s about 6.5% lower than that 2019 peak, and hovering at a level last seen in 2002, as visualized by the chart above.

Many analysts, particularly those who are politically progressive, believe austerity at the state and local level helped worsen the Great Recession, or at least prolonged the recovery. “According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, state and local governments have been exerting a net drag on national economic growth since the end of 2009,” the Brookings Institution noted in 2012.

And as the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute put it in a 2020 analysis, “States that preserved or grew their public-sector workforce fared much better coming out of the recession, with fewer job losses overall, fewer private-sector job cuts, less growth in unemployment, and faster job growth as the recovery took hold.

On average, states that kept teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other public-sector workers on the job essentially maintained the same level of private-sector employment over this period. In contrast, states that cut state and local government employment lost, on average, 1.3% of jobs outside of state and local government.”

The job losses as the pandemic hit in early 2020 were so severe — nearly 1.3 million jobs were lost from local government — that even after a few months of recovery this year, employment has been treading water at a level last seen nearly two decades ago, when the overall population was a lot smaller.

As with all things, the corona-crisis may be different in this regard. Many municipal workers have the jobs that are among the most dangerous in a public-health emergency. Many may have left their roles voluntarily, and some may not return.

Read next: Cities and towns are about to get $65 billion in stimulus from Washington. Here’s what to know about the American Rescue Plan

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