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Commentary By Steven Malanga

Joe Biden and the Myth of Local Government Layoffs

Economics, Economics, Economics, Cities, Education Finance, Tax & Budget, Pre K-12

Even with cutbacks, cities will have plenty of teachers for our kids and cops to keep us safe.

During the debate this fall over President Obama’s American Jobs Act, the White House released a study suggesting some 280,000 teacher jobs were at risk as part of a vast downsizing of local governments across America. When Republicans refused to support the bill, which would have funneled more aid to local governments to preserve jobs, the president declared that those who voted against the bill would have to tell voters “why teachers in your community don’t deserve a paycheck again.”

Vice President Joe Biden went further, suggesting that the failure to send more aid to localities would prompt sharp cutbacks in another area—policing—and lead to a rapid rise in violent crime.

But this hyperbolic rhetoric ignores a decades-long growth of public employment that has left many municipal governments with nearly historic high levels of government workers relative to the population—even after the cutbacks of the last few years. Hiring increases have so rapidly outpaced the growth in the population that retrenchment is inevitable.

Take local education workers. Hiring has far outpaced the growth in student enrollment, driving down the number of students per teacher in American public schools to 15.6 in 2010 from 26.9 in 1955, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Robust hiring has continued even during periods of enrollment declines, including from 1971 through 1984, when the number of public-school students fell virtually every year, declining in total by 15%, while the ranks of teachers grew by 7%.

But we rarely hear much about enrollment levels when education staffing is debated. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, show that local education employment is back to about where it was in 2006 after recent cutbacks. Sound terrible? Maybe not so much when you consider that public-school enrollment has been stagnant since 2006.

Local districts have also bulked up on other workers—from instructional aides to administrative personnel to social workers and counselors. In 1955, teachers constituted about 65% of local education workers; today, despite years of rapid gains in teacher ranks, they amount to only about 40% of the eight million local education workers.

Per-pupil spending in public schools has grown to $10,500 today from $2,831 (in 2010 dollars) in 1961, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Has the spending paid off? Mean scores on the SAT’s reading test are down 7% since 1966, while reading scores for 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, administered since 1971, are flat over that time.

America has also made a big investment in public safety, and there the facts suggest the spending has paid off. They also suggest we need hardly fear unprecedented spikes in crime of the sort the vice president warned about.

Starting in the early 1990s, when America’s crime rate peaked at 758 violent crimes per 100,000 people, police departments started hiring rapidly. From 1992 through 2008, according to the Department of Justice’s Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, the ranks of state and local cops and other law-enforcement personnel soared by one-third, to more than 1.1 million. That growth far outpaced the country’s population increase in the period, driving up the percentage of law-enforcement personnel relative to the general population by 12%.

Results? Violent crime is down by 47% since 1992. The property-crime rate has fallen by 75%. To be sure, other factors were at work besides body count, including better policing strategies and the waning of the 1980s crack epidemic.

Still, New York City’s experience is illuminating. Gotham made a big commitment to expand its police force as murders hit an all-time high in 1990. An income-tax surcharge provided the resources to boost police hiring by about 15%, or 5,000 officers, to nearly 40,000 over the next several years. The city’s crime rate then plunged, falling 70% in the 1990s.

But the city never intended to maintain those police levels, and after 2000 it began slowly cutting back its force. The force has since shrunk to nearly its 1990 level, yet crime has continued to decline by another 35%. Today New York City’s murder rate is at levels not seen since the early 1960s. City officials attribute some of this continued improvement to better tools, including sophisticated crime-mapping technology, and smarter police work, like new strategies that deploy officers rapidly based on where crime seems to be rising.

Elsewhere the ranks of police officers have fallen by less than 1% after rising by 9% since 2000 alone. That, and the fact that America is a far safer place today than 10 or 20 years ago, suggests that Vice President Biden’s claim that “the result [of police layoffs] has been—and it’s not unique—murder rates are up, robberies are up, rapes are up,” is simply, as the Washington Post observed, “absurd.”

It’s important to keep the long rise in local government employment in mind amid the debate over sending more federal aid to cities and states. Steadily increasing municipal-government payrolls, combined with sharply higher employment costs—including rich pension benefits and soaring health-care outlays—have made many local budgets unsustainable. The National Governors Association recognized as much last year when it issued a report predicting a long period of fiscal “austerity” that local governments must solve in part by better controlling personnel costs.

That almost certainly means that more layoffs are coming. But hyperbolic talk aside, local governments are well-staffed by historical standards and have the troops to do the job at hand.

This piece originally appeared in Wall Street Journal

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal