Working for Uncle Sam

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


A few weeks ago I wondered how the pay of government workers compares to that of comparable workers in the private sector these days. It’s a hard question to answer, but USA Today weighs in today with its own analysis:

Overall, federal workers earned an average salary of $67,691 in 2008 for occupations that exist both in government and the private sector, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The average pay for the same mix of jobs in the private sector was $60,046 in 2008, the most recent data available. These salary figures do not include the value of health, pension and other benefits, which averaged $40,785 per federal employee in 2008 vs. $9,882 per private worker, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

….But National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley says the comparison is faulty because it “compares apples and oranges.” Federal accountants, for example, perform work that has more complexity and requires more skill than accounting work in the private sector, she says. “When you look at the actual duties, you see that very few federal jobs align with those in the private sector,” she says. She says federal employees are paid an average of 26% less than non-federal workers doing comparable work.

This doesn’t end the debate, it just adds another data point, and a fairly crude one at that. For one thing, this is just a straight comparison of job titles with no attempt to figure out whether the job requirements are genuinely comparable, and there’s no adjustment for things like age and experience. Unsurprisingly, there’s also a fair amount of difference between job categories: high-skill occupations (IT workers, lawyers, doctors) tended to be higher paid in the private sector while low-skill jobs (janitors, cooks, PR flacks1) were higher paid in the public sector. And since this is a survey of federal jobs, it means that teachers, the biggest category of public workers, aren’t included at all.

So take this with a grain of salt. Still $108 thousand vs. $70 thousand is a pretty big difference, and it would take a lot of data massaging to get rid of it, let alone put private workers 26% ahead. This is a topic that deserves some rigorous study. Via Alex Tabarrok.

1OK, including PR folks in this category was just a joke. Still, they account for the biggest single difference between federal and private workers: $132 thousand vs. $88 thousand. Apparently government agencies really value their flacks highly.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest