President Donald Trump’s spending priorities would seem to imply big cuts in the federal workforce — at least those parts of it that aren’t engaged in defending the country (and even some that are). With the monthly jobs report out March 10, I thought it might be useful to put in context just how big that workforce is and how it has changed over the years.
Employment in the federal government totaled a seasonally adjusted 2.83 million in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s up slightly from 2.82 million in January, and 2.79 million when President Barack Obama took office in January 2009. Federal government employment hit its all-time peak in May 1990, at 3.34 million. That was partly because of temporary U.S. Census Bureau workers; in non-census years in the late 1980s and early 1990s the number was around 3.1 million. The federal government’s share of total nonfarm payroll employment in February was 1.94 percent; that’s about as low as it’s been since the BLS started measuring in 1939 (the record low, set last April, is 1.93 percent).
The BLS counts only civilians, so these numbers leave out active-duty military (1.29 million as of Jan. 31) and employees of the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, National Imagery and Mapping Agency, and Defense Intelligence Agency (which add up to between 80,000 and 150,000, according to estimates of uncertain validity that I found online). There were more than 3 million active-duty members of the military in the late 1960s and more than 2 million in the late 1980s, so the overall trend on these noncivilian federal jobs is clearly downward.
Then there are the people who are doing federal government work but are employed by contractors. The Congressional Budget Office was asked to come up with an overall number of contract workers in 2015 and said it just couldn’t, but noted that government spending on contractors had risen 90 percent from 2000 to 2012. The Defense Department, which accounts for about 70 percent of this spending, has for the past few years put out annual reports that estimate the number of full-time equivalent employees working for it through services contracts: 561,239 in fiscal-year 2015, down from 766,732 in fiscal 2009. This does not include contractors working for any of the intelligence agencies; you need to have access to the “Classified Annex” to the report to find that out.
But I digress. Most government contract workers appear to be in defense-related positions. (From the CBO: “Nondefense agencies with significant contract spending include the Department of Energy, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of State, the United States Agency for International Development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Centers for Medicare Medicaid Services, and the National Institutes of Health.”)
The cuts likely to come are going to hit non-defense agencies the hardest. So let’s just look at what the BLS calls “other federal government,” a category that excludes the U.S. Postal Service, the Defense Department and federal hospitals. It’s basically what we tend to think of as “the government” — most of the federal agencies, Congress, the White House. (Like many narrower employment categories, it’s reported with a one-month delay.)
Apart from the big spikes during census years, what strikes me is how steady federal employment has been since the 1970s, even as the population and overall employment have grown. The one big decline was during the Bill Clinton administration, but then most of it was reversed during the George W. Bush and early Obama years. Adding in contractors would surely give the line more of an upward trajectory, but overall I think it would still come off as pretty steady. Can the Trump administration really make a big dent in this? Should it?
Last year I wrote a column about some of these numbers, “Big Government Keeps on Getting Smaller.” Some readers objected that the number of employees wasn’t the only or necessarily the best measure of the size and intrusiveness of government. They were right! But it’s still a useful measure — and what it shows is a government that employs about the same number of people that it did four decades ago.
Justin Fox, a Bloomberg View columnist, is at email@example.com. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”