Census of Governments Public Employment Data: Comparative Data for NY, NJ, and the U.S.

The U.S. Census Bureau conducts a Census of Governments every five years, and a month ago released data on state and local government public employment and payroll across the nation for the 2012 census. The raw data may be found here.


I have spent much of my spare time over the past month, nearly 80 hours in all, putting the data in spreadsheets to make it readily and reasonably comparable across places.  I have worked with data from the Governments Division of the U.S. Census Bureau for nearly 25 years:  the source of my expertise (and past data) may be found here.


In my compilation local government employment (full time equivalent) is shown per 100,000 residents for each government function (education, police, parks), for every county in New York State and New Jersey, regions of New York State, the U.S. average, and selected other states and counties around the country.  The data by county is for all local governments in each county, and is from the Bureau’s “County Area” files.  Spreadsheets are included for 1992, 2002, and the most recent Census of Governments, in 2012 – years I consider to be reasonably comparable with regard to the overall economy.  The monthly payroll data is per full time equivalent worker, as a percent above or below the U.S. average.  Related private sector data is also included, to put these numbers in perspective.

I intend to write a series of posts complete with charts, organized by government function, comparing New York City’s local government employment and payroll with other places, over the next few weeks. But I am putting the spreadsheets and tables out now for anyone to use, including those seeking to write about other areas.  Links to the spreadsheets, and an explanation of how I compiled them and what the show, may be found below.

First, my usual disclaimer when putting out this sort of data. Without place-to-place comparisons, one is always comparing this year’s public employment, spending and taxes with last year’s public employment, spending and taxes, for New York City, New York State and other governments in isolation.  That is a comparison with an ideology – the relative winners and losers in state and local government priorities should be fixed in place forever. Comparisons with other places, and with the national average, provide an alternative viewpoint. Just because it’s the national average does not make it right, because different places have different needs and characteristics.  But large differences, in either direction, should be explained and justified rather than just continued by the divine right of those who come out ahead.

Unfortunately, much of the information the general public receives on state and local government policy is generated by those with a financial interest in that policy.  Those seeking to take more out, or put less in, release a “study” with a handy press release intended to create an easy news story. A few of the usual suspects are called for oppositional quotes, and the news story is then complete.

What I would like to see is the opposite. Objective information, where available, is collected, tabulated, analyzed, and then provided to those with a financial interest in state and local policy, and to the usual suspects. Who are then asked to explain it. Why does this make sense? Why is this fair? Who did this come about? Who made the decisions that set these priorities, and why?  Often there will be good reasons, but all the significant differences from place to place, and from one time to another, raise questions.

Perhaps a preference to avoid those questions is why I am compiling this information in my spare time and putting it out on a blog. Rather than having one of the 24,707 full time equivalent state and local government workers in New York State in the Financial Administration function doing it, as part of their job. Or at least, having worked for the government myself for 20 years, that’s what I would suspect. It is only politically safe to put out the side of the story you want people to see, not all the numbers together. Me?  I’m just going to dump it out there. No one is paying me to do (or not do) this, and no one can stop me.

Now onto the spreadsheets, and what they show. The first is a table of local government employment and payroll in 2012.  Warning:  it is big.

2012 Census of Governments Employment by County and State

The main table is set up to print on two letter-sized pages, though there is no way to be sure what your spreadsheet program will do with it. “File, Page Setup.”  Data for individual counties in New York State, New Jersey, and selected areas elsewhere are to the left:  panes are frozen to keep the row titles in place as one scrolls over “Window, Freeze Pane.” The source data, painstakingly arranged to have the same data item in the same row for every place, is below.

At the top one sees that in 2012 New York City had 4,899 total full time equivalent local government employees for every 100,000 city residents, compared with a U.S. average of 3,827.  Full time equivalent employment is equal to full time employment plus part time workers converted into full time workers, based on the number of hours they work.  Simply counting each employee as “one” greatly inflates the relative level of public employment in rural areas, where many public employees work part time.

The structure of local government varies from place to place.  Within a single county one may find a county government, municipalities, townships, school districts, and other special districts.  Within New York City, in contrast, there are only really two local governments: the City of New York (which for historical reasons includes New York City Transit in this data) and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It is to make comparisons relevant across areas with different local government structures that the Census Bureau creates the “County Area” files for all local governments within each county added together.

Even so, I have had to make adjustments to make better comparisons with New York City.

In most places public transit is tabulated as “local government,” but for historical reasons almost all the transit agencies in New York State outside New York City, and in New Jersey, are classified as “state government.”  Obviously this would make comparisons between New York City, the rest of NY State, and New Jersey inaccurate.  So I have added the “state government” employment in these categories to the “local government” tabulation, distributing New York’s state government transit employment and payroll among different broad regions of New York State based on transit-specific data from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database.  Since I have no basis to allocate New Jersey Transit among the counties of New Jersey, the relevant comparison is with that state’s total.

Similarly, in the State of Hawaii it is the state government, not local governments, that runs the elementary and secondary schools, and in some states (including New Jersey at some times time) the state government has taken over poorly performing school districts. To make the data comparable, I add in state “elementary and secondary school” employment to the local totals for the U.S. and New Jersey (statewide).  Once again, I have no basis to assign that employment to particular New Jersey counties, so in some of those counties public school employment was actually higher relative to population than it would appear in this data.

Local governments that cross state lines present additional issues.  The entire Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is assigned to New York City in the “County Area” data.  I have divided it between New York and New Jersey, adjusting the statewide local government totals (but, again, not the county area totals in New Jersey) accordingly. I would make no sense to show virtually no Air Transportation and Water Transportation public employment in New Jersey, given that everyone knows that Newark Airport and Port Elizabeth-Newark exist.  This adjustment will be more important when the local government finance data is released, as the Port Authority contracts out most of its activities in these areas and the public employment totals are relatively low.

In other metro areas, the entire employment and payroll of the regional transit agency is assigned to the individual county where its headquarters is located.  The entire Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), for example, is assigned to the City of Philadelphia.  This not only makes public employment in the Transit category seem inflated, but total local government employment as well. In these cases, rather than dividing transit employment by total county population, I divided it by transit service area employment as reported by the National Transit Database. Since I was unable to obtain this data for 1992, take data for some areas (outside New York and New Jersey) for that year with a grain of salt.

For the public schools, the relevant population isn’t the total population, but rather than school-age population. As it happens New York City has a relatively low school-age population as a share of the total. While the data included here is based on the TOTAL population, not the school-age population, I will do it both ways when I create charts and write a separate post on education. But the school-age population is included in the spreadsheet, so anyone else can do these calculations themselves right now.

Another factor that makes New York City’s public school employment higher than its ratio to the total population would imply is the relatively large share of the city’s children that attend public schools. On the other hand, New York City’s high public transit employment is offset by less spending on – and employment in industries related to – private automobiles.  To allow at least rough and ready consideration of this explanation of higher or lower levels of public employment in different places, I have included private sector data for a number of “government-substitute” industries from another source.

Also included is private employment in those sectors that are substantially “government funded,” those in the health care and social services sectors and infrastructure construction.  Though generally paid for by governments, these activities are generally carried on by private-sector organizations, either for-profit or non-profit.  In the case of health care and certain aspects of social services these are funded in part by state Medicaid programs, the second largest category of expenditure in most states.

Comparisons between the Census of Governments and included private sector data are rough and ready rather than accurate, for several reasons.  First, the private sector data is annual data for a given year, while the Census of Governments is for a particular month.  Second, the private sector data is total private employment, not full time equivalent employment, with every part time worker counting once just like every full time worker.  All of the major data series on private employment are presented this way.

Third, and most importantly is the problem of suppression.  Basically, the public agencies will suppress the data for a given place/industry if reporting it might allow the disclosure of the employment and payroll of a given firm. If there is a county with only two private hospitals, for example, the data must be suppressed because otherwise each could find out the others’ employment and payroll by subtracting their own employment and payroll from the totals in the government data.  While private companies continue to compile and sell dossiers on individual Americans without restriction, political pressure keeps the government on its toes with regard to disclosure.  Particularly when the information is gleaned from tax records, as this data is.

Because of the problem of disclosure, I didn’t bother to try downloading private data for small rural counties, intending to get information for the “Rest of New York State” by subtracting from the state total. Even so, some of the totals for “New York City,” the “Downstate Suburbs” and “Upstate Urban” appear lower than they are in reality.  Because data for smaller counties such as Staten Island, Putnam, and Broome is not available, and these totals do not include it.  In some cases data was suppressed for the year in question, but was available for year or two before or after: since this is a rough approximation I included the data for the other year.

I asked the New York State Department of Labor to provide the data for the broader areas of New York State, rather than individual counties, to get around the suppression of data for smaller places. It tried but then said it could not, presumably due to the problem of secondary suppression – one could get data on that one hospital in Staten Island by subtracting the other boroughs from the citywide total.  Looking at the original data in the spreadsheets, anywhere the data is not strictly by addition of all numbers is in bold.

In some cases the data is so weak that I decided it wasn’t worth reporting at all, even just to give people a rough idea. Unfortunately this includes the private mass transit industry.  When examining the extent of public employment in the transit function in the downstate suburbs for 2012, bear in mind that this does NOT include the substantial bus systems of Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties, all of which are operated by private companies under contract from the counties.

The second printed page is a table of average pay. Average pay only makes sense in relation to average pay elsewhere.  In the early 1960s, a person earning $10,000 per year had made it big; today that is a poverty wage.  So the average pay of public employees in each category is expressed as a percent higher or lower than the national average.

But the average pay of public employees also only make sense relative to the average pay of the private sector workers who have to support them.  The average private sector pay also affects the local cost of living, and thus how much government workers must earn to have a standard of living equivalent to government workers in other places.

Thus data on average pay per worker in the private sector, relative to the U.S. average, is included as well.  For example, in March 2012 based on Census of Governments data the average local government worker in New Jersey earned (cash pay only not pension and other benefits) 26.0% more than the average local government worker in the U.S.  For all of 2012 based on Employment and Wages data from the BLS, the average New Jersey private sector worker earned 18.1% more than the average private sector worker in the U.S.

In Downstate New York, however, the overpaid Finance and Insurance sector – a labor market only relevant to those in it – warps any reasonable comparison between total private sector average pay and public sector pay.  So private sector pay is also provided excluding Finance.  The average private sector in Downstate New York earned 52.0% more than the U.S. average in 2012 including Finance, but just 28.1% more excluding Finance.

Every county, state and metro area has its higher and lower-paid sectors, of course.  But it is rare for a single such sector to be both large enough and overpaid enough to make the private sector total essentially irrelevant. I downloaded data from suspect areas around the country, and came up with only three other examples: Finance in Fairfield County, Connecticut, Professional and Business Services (including the rampaging new media/dot.coms) in the City of San Francisco, and the Computer and Electronic Product Manufacturing industry in Santa Clara County, California (the Silicon Valley).  It is perhaps not a coincidence that these are places with increasing housing crises (for those outside the overpaid sector) and intense concern about a displaced middle class.  They are also places where public sector workers, perhaps aspiring to redistribute the excess income of the overpaid sector to itself, ends up profiting at the expense of the rest of the private sector every time the overpaid sector enters a downturn.

Meanwhile, the Finance sector doesn’t appreciably affect the private sector total in Massachusetts or New Jersey.  Neither the Aerospace nor the Computer Software industry has a significant approach on the total in Seattle.

One reason this compilation took me so long is that I also created spreadsheets for the same database and tables for 2002, linked here:

2002 Census of Governments Employment by County and State

And for 1992, linked here.

1992 Census of Governments Employment by County and State

At a later point I’ll put the data for NYC, the U.S. average and a few other areas in single table for all years, but anyone else can do that now.  Just remember to “Paste Special” “Values” because most of the data in the output tables is “formulas” linked to the source data below, not numbers, and will disappear if moved or separated from the source data otherwise.

With regard to average pay data for New York City public employees in March 2002, consider than for many government functions it was inflated by post-9/11 related overtime.  A comparison between 1992 and 2012, skipping 2002, may in many cases be more revealing.  I nonetheless chose to include 2002 because, as mentioned, it was a weak post-recession year like 1992 and 2012.  And because the 20-year comparison matches up with a couple of political eras. Trends from 1992 to 2002 show the effect of the Giuliani Administration in New York City, and the Pataki/Bruno/Silver years in Albany.  Trends from 2002 to 2012 show the effect of the Bloomberg era in NYC, and the Silver and whoever else era in Albany.

Speaking of state government, the spreadsheet linked below shows the same sort of data for the major functions of state governments, and the local government total, for the State of New York, the State of New Jersey, the U.S. total and selected other states, for 1992, 2002, and 2012. I’ll be damned if I can get this thing to print right in Excel on the I-Mac.  Feel from to reformat the “File” “Page Setup” yourself.

State Employment Census of Governments

What one sees is that state government employment, relative to population, is small relative to local government employment. Particularly if one excludes state employment in the public schools and mass transit, to make the data more comparable across states.

The federal government takes in most of the money, and local governments (and the private sector, in health care) do most of the work. But the federal government sends most of that money right back out again (Medicare, Social Security, interest on the debt, aid payments to states), and actually does little directly aside from national defense and the post office.  And local governments operate with funding provided by, and under rules set by the states.  It is actually the state governments that have the most power over our daily lives on the margin. Just ask NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio. But that power is not reflected in the public employment data, which shows the major state functions to be public colleges and universities and public prisons.

Note that the local government employment totals are slightly higher by based on the statewide data than they are based on all the county area figures in a given state added together, in 1992, 2002 and 2012. Presumably because there is some local government employment that the Census Bureau knows exists, but cannot allocate to a particular county.

Having quickly looked at the comparison between 1992, 2002 and 2012 if only to check the data, what would I say is the broadest stroke trend?

Nationwide there was a big increase in local government employment from 1992 to 2002, relative to population.  There was a big increase in the population age 5 to 17 during those years as the children of the baby boomers – the “baby boom” echo generation – flooded into the schools.  This is part of the explanation for a large increase in public school employment relative to the total population.  There was also a big increase in police officer employment relative to population, perhaps in part in reaction to the high crime of the early 1990s.  And during the latter years of the 1990s something happened that has been rare for the past 35 years – the wages of the average private sector worker increased relative to inflation.  This increased tax revenues, and provided states with more money to spend.

From 2002 to 2012, on the other hand, local government employment fell relative to population nationwide, though not enough to fully reverse the prior increase.  The public debts, retroactive pension increases and pension underfunding of the late 1990s and early 2000s led to soaring public pension costs. The increase in public retirement costs, combined with falling inflation-adjusted wages in the private sector, meant that public sector workers became much richer relative to private sector workers, who could thus afford to carry fewer of them. And rising public health are costs, shown by the big increase in private health and social assistance sector employment relative to population, absorbed more federal, state and local tax dollars, siphoning money away from other government functions undertaken by public employees directly.

How was the trend different for New York City, for other parts of New York State, and for New Jersey?  What was the trend for specific government functions? There is no need to wait for me to tell you.  Download the spreadsheets, save them on your computer, and see for yourself.  Make up your own mind.  Don’t waste my 80 hours.