Jonathan Cohn

Public Workers Getting Ahead? Or Falling Behind?

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The debate over compensation for government employees has largely focused on how these workers fare relative to their private sector counterparts. Do they make more or less? What if you adjust for education and age? What if you count benefits? And so on. 

But the more pertinent question may be about how all workers, private and public, are doing. A new briefing paper from the Economic Policy Institute addresses that. Here's the conclusion, from Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz:

Neither private-sector workers nor state and local government employees have seen their pay rise much over the last two decades, and what meager pay growth they have experienced has been far outpaced by growth in productivity--the increased goods and services that they themselves have generated. The substantial growth in productivity, income, and wealth in the last few decades could and should have generated some pay growth for American workers. Reconnecting the growth of workers’ pay to the growth of productivity is the major challenge policymakers should be addressing. 

I haven't read the study that carefully and, besides, I am not really qualified to judge it. (EPI also gets some funding from labor unions, just as many conservative think-tanks get money from corporations.) But EPI has an excellent track record on this kind of research and the finding is consistent with what we've been hearing, for a while, from a number of authoritative sources.

It's also a reminder that the conversation about public employees can be a useful distraction for some politicians. Otherwise, they'd have to explain why the typical American worker hasn't gotten a bigger share of the economic pie.

Update: I thought I should mention that EPI's record on these kinds of studies is very good. So I added that.

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