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BIG GOVERNMENT
NUMBER OF PUBLIC EMPLOYEES GOES UP EVEN AS AREA POPULATION GOES DOWN

Anyone who still wonders why this state and this region are declining should consider the following figures on public-sector employment, produced by the Business Council of New York State:

While Erie and Niagara counties were busy losing residents from 1990 to 2000, their state and local government employment rose from 79,800 to 86,700.

The rate of public-sector employment in those counties -- 74 state and local government workers per 1,000 population -- is 19 percent higher than the state figure of 62 per thousand.

That state figure, meanwhile, outstrips the national average of 55 workers per 1,000 residents by 14 percent and represents the country's ninth-highest concentration of state and local government workers. That is to say, Erie-Niagara's rate of public-sector employment is greater than the state's, and the state's is greater than the country's.

Average annual pay for workers in New York, meanwhile, stood at $51,445, second-highest in the nation and 26 percent above the national average of $40,717.

That figure is clearly influenced by New York City's high cost of living; nevertheless, together with the state's high rate of public-sector employment, it sketches the outline of a problem familiar to overtaxed New Yorkers: This is a state where too much is never enough.

Pick an issue -- education, health care, whatever -- and the cost in New York will far outstrip the national average. Any state might be more expensive than another in particular ways, but New York is more expensive more often. We don't know when to stop. When things are bad, we make them worse.

For example, even if public-sector employment had held steady in Erie-Niagara, the falling population would have raised the number of workers per resident. But it didn't hold steady; it grew. With fewer people on hand to pay for an expanding work force, is it any wonder the region has been unable to reverse its sagging fortunes?

Add to that the problem of the state's generous public retirement benefit, and New York begins to look more like a pyramid scheme than an American state. The impact of government costs is like a snowball rolling downhill, driving taxes up, expectations down and jobs out.

Changing such a destructive trend would be challenging in the most forward-looking of states. In hidebound New York, where government is seen as a jobs program rather than a tool to deliver important services, it will be maddeningly difficult. But things usually don't remain static; they change. The costs of government in relation to other states will either improve or worsen.

Given New York's inability to make even the mildest of corrections and the simple fact that it is easier to do nothing than it is to do something, conditions are likely to deteriorate. That, too, could change, but only if an aroused electorate demands it.

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