As the congressional debt-reduction supercommittee prepares to consider trillions of dollars in government spending cuts, advocates for federal workers are reminding lawmakers that cuts to the federal payroll could have adverse economic affects not just inside or near the Beltway, but in rural communities nationwide.
Many Americans — and the lawmakers who represent them — don’t realize that about 85 percent of federal employees live and work well beyond Washington, with many of them located in tiny counties where the federal government is the dominant employer.
The group recently concluded that urban areas, or counties with large populations of highly educated residents, would certainly suffer from federal job losses, but not as much as rural counties that are home to military bases like Christian County, Ky. The county, home to the 101st Airborne Division’s headquarters at Fort Campbell, has more than 1,900 federal civilian jobs, and federal job cuts would only add to an unemployment rate hovering around 11 percent.
The pain also could be felt in tiny rural counties with large federal prisons or Veterans Affairs centers, including Williamson County, Ill., which has more than 1,500 federal jobs, Preston County, W. Va. with 555 federal jobs, Dickinson County, Mich. with 658 federal jobs, and Pittsburg County, Okla. with 1,936 jobs.
If the government takes those jobs away, “those counties generally aren’t the kinds places private companies are itching to set up shop,” the Patchwork study said. “They tend to have lower-than-average median household incomes and education levels and their more remote locations mean longer travel to and from bigger cities.”
Cutting such jobs “will result in an even wider divide between rich and poor in our nation with those who can least afford it losing their jobs,” FEW’s Janet Kopenhaver said. “These public sector jobs also, in most cases, include health care and retirement benefits which are extremely hard to get from employers in these remote areas.”
For now, the argument is hypothetical — we don't know when or if or how many jobs could be cut. And there’s no guarantee that any such cuts would actually eliminate jobs in rural areas.
But the argument might resonate with several of the supercommittee’s members. Its co-chair, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), hails from a state with a large rural population, as do Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Reps. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.).
Expect other federal and postal worker groups to begin making similar arguments in the coming weeks as specific spending cuts are unveiled and their potential affect on the federal workforce become clear.
Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost