The Death of Public Service

nurse and doctor

Public Service or Private Profit

Today’s villains are easy to spot – guns on their hips or chalk on their sleeves, riding red fire engines or garbage trucks. You see them everywhere you go, but especially in all the government buildings in town, in the courthouses, in the motor vehicle department, in the Post Office, in the neighborhood schools. Government workers.

They used to be called public servants. That label for those who were employed by governments came from a time when serving the public meant accepting meager salaries in exchange for the satisfaction of doing the nation’s work, helping fellow citizens. Nevertheless those salaries often allowed people to step out of the working class into the lower middle class. Middle class meant a leap in comfort and in financial security for the long term. It also meant respect and status from everybody else, higher or lower.

Now their salaries are no longer meager. Collective action by male policemen and female teachers, by white collar clerks and garbage men have created a social revolution. As governments grew in the 20th century, millions of American families wrestled their way into the middle class through public service. This was the great historical moment for the American middle class. Small businessmen, members of powerful unions, managers of fast food franchises, and many others rose into the middle class.

That was right for America.

Public servants kept rising. Just in my lifetime, the salaries of many cops, teachers and government office workers have moved them into the upper half of American families. It was a struggle to convince governments at every level to pay their employees as much as similarly skilled people made in private industry. In many cases, public servants gave up salary hikes for better benefits, income now for income later.

There were some who climbed the staircase even higher into management. Their salaries might reach over $100,000. That’s doing very well, unless you compare them to bankers or stock brokers.

Apparently that’s no longer right for America.

Now the favorite target for Republican politicians seeking ways to reduce government spending is the public servant and public service unions. Republican governors across the country argue that teachers and police and all the other employees of local and state governments make much too much money. They are feeding off the public, pushing our tax rates up, ruining state budgets.

According to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis for 2009, public sector workers earned an average of 4% more than private sector workers across the US; the difference is mainly in more valuable benefits. Is that so terrible? How much can we save by cutting public service workers’ salaries and benefits? Should people working for the public be paid less than private workers? That tiny difference of 4% does not take into account the skill levels of government workers, the lengthy training that firefighters receive or the advanced degrees that teachers get. No matter how you look at it, government workers are right at the average American income. Is that too much?

Meanwhile, every government contract that is given to private corporations goes to pay the salaries of their multi-millionaire executives. Companies like Halliburton, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Electric use funds from huge government contracts to subsidize their executive pay scales. Why don’t we set some limits on how many of our tax dollars go into the pockets of millionaires?

Instead Republicans are going after one half of the middle class by trying to make the other half jealous. Across the country, Republicans are trying to privatize a wide variety of government services, to transform public service into private profit. They claim there will be a big savings. Maybe they’re right. Instead of offering people a job they could retire from, private companies could hire and fire, adjust to every market change, keep finding younger workers. They won’t have to spend endless sums on training and study. Hiring will be much easier when qualifications are lower.

Steve HochstadtMaybe public service is too good for these Republicans. There is too much public in it – too much attention paid to those way below the middle class, too much attention to diversity and equality.

Do we want our police departments and our schools, our veterans’ hospitals and our national parks to just focus on the bottom line? Is the public servant dead, to be replaced by the minimum wage private employee? How will that make our lives better?

Steve Hochstadt

Published by the LA Progressive on May 4, 2011
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."