The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Note on the Federal Workforce


Via Alex Tabarrok, USA Today has published a provocative, decidedly imperfect survey comparing federal salaries vs. private sector salaries for a range of occupations. First, the key findings:

• Federal. The federal pay premium cut across all job categories — white-collar, blue-collar, management, professional, technical and low-skill. In all, 180 jobs paid better average salaries in the federal government; 36 paid better in the private sector.

Private. The private sector paid more on average in a select group of high-skill occupations, including lawyers, veterinarians and airline pilots. The government’s 5,200 computer research scientists made an average of $95,190, about $10,000 less than the average in the corporate world.

State and local. State government employees had an average salary of $47,231 in 2008, about 5% less than comparable jobs in the private sector. City and county workers earned an average of $43,589, about 2% more than private workers in similar jobs. State and local workers have higher total compensation than private workers when the value of benefits is included.

And then this essential proviso on federal compensation:

These salary figures do not include the value of health, pension and other benefits, which averaged $40,785 per federal employee in 2008 vs. $9,882 per private worker, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

As for state and local government, the role of public pensions is important to note. My understanding is that we’re talking about $2 trillion worth of pension liabilities at those levels of government, which suggests a need for belt-tightening for decades to come. 

I operate under the assumption that public employees are by and large hard-working and conscientious, and that they deserve our respect. I also think, however, that we need to ask serious questions what we can and can’t afford, just as private employers, particularly private employers working in the most competitive sectors, have had to make hard choices. 


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