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What has happened to public employment?

In this week’s EconTalk episode with Joseph Stiglitz, he claims that public sector employment has fallen by 1 million since either 2007 or 2008. I expressed skepticism and said I would find a source to check if the claim is true. It’s sort of true. It’s an interesting example of how what seems to be a simple factual claim turns out to be less straightforward than it seems. Here are the data on government employees (federal, state, and local) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (with thanks to Bill McBride of Calxulated Risk who helped me get these numbers):

Using the most recent preliminary numbers (for June) shows that employment is down by about 640,000 from the peak in 2007 and 2008 which was in August of 2008. That’s pretty far from a million. But then if you look carefully, you see that the peak wasn’t actually in 2007 0r 2008, it was in May of 2010. And so giving Stiglitz the benefit of the doubt, employment is down by more than a million workers, from 22.98 million to 21.94–he was just wrong about the date. But May 2010 was a very unusual month–that was the month the government hired 411,000 temporary workers for the Census. By July, it’s back to to 22.59 million. Maybe using May 2010 for the peak doesn’t capture what’s going on in with public sector employment over the course of the recession. So Stiglitz’s claim is sort of true…