When President Obama touts his record on creating jobs, he usually focuses on private-sector job growth. That’s no accident, because government jobs have been in a steep decline, especially at the state and local level, as many governors have slashed jobs (especially for teachers) to meet requirements that they keep their budgets balanced.
The decline in government jobs, which started in earnest when Obama’s federal stimulus funds ran low, has been a major factor in the anemic job creation during Obama’s tenure. But how much is a president to blame for that?
As readers of this column know, we frown on the journalistic and political artifice of pretending that a president, as soon as he takes the oath of office, is responsible for every facet of the economy. The relationship between a president and state and local government jobs is even more tenuous, because those jobs are dependent on the decisions of other elected officials — governors and state legislators. The overall state of the national economy certainly plays a role in those decisions, but those other officials may have different agendas than the president.
Indeed, some have argued that Republican takeovers at the state level in 2010 elections have led to severe cutbacks in public workforces.
When a reader asked us whether “Red” (Republican) states accounted for more job losses than “Blue” (Democratic) states during Obama’s presidency, we decided to investigate. We used Bureau of Labor Statistics data and the help of the incomparable Lori Williams at Tableau Software. We make no judgment about whether reductions in state and local government jobs are justified--some readers might believe state budgets are bloated--but simply want to explore what has happened in the past three years.
The question is actually a difficult one to answer. There are few pure Red or Blue states. There are states led by Democratic governors, with Republican legislatures, or visa versa. There are state legislatures split between Democrats and Republicans. Moreover, there are data on state government jobs and on local (city and county) government jobs, which of course are heavily influenced by state budget funds.
While some states, such as North Dakota with its newfound oil riches, have added government jobs, the data demonstrate the grim budget picture that most states have faced. An analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has found that as stimulus funds dried up, many states responded with spending cuts, not revenue increases, to close the gap.
The visual below starts with the first month of Obama’s presidency — January 2009. To keep things simple, we labeled a state as Democrat or Republican based on current affiliation, though obviously there have been some party shifts, because most of the losses have occurred more recently.
We show the results in percentages because raw numbers are often misleading (using raw numbers, Democratic-led California by itself accounts for a large chunk of the overall job losses.)
The visual below reveals that:
1. Democratic governors and legislatures had a much better record on state government jobs, cutting them by a smaller percentage than their Republican counterparts.
2. Republican governors and legislatures, by contrast, did much better on local government jobs.
3. Legislatures that are split between the parties had the best performance of all.
4. There is virtually no difference between Republicans and Democrats when the state and local jobs are combined.
The visual also allows you to look at the performance of individual states, where much of the above is confirmed on an individual level.
The Pinocchio Test
Experts we consulted were unable to provide an explanation for the starkly different results for state and local jobs under Democratic and Republican leaders. We are eager to hear whether readers have their own explanations. We are sure some readers will find the results maddeningly inconclusive, though the interactive graphic is fascinating to explore.
Obviously, the political and economic situation in individual states are so different that perhaps it is foolhardy to generalize. To alter a line from Tolstoy, “Happy states are all alike; every unhappy state is unhappy in its own way.”
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