Without federal aid, many state and local governments could make the same budget cuts that hampered the last economic recovery

If policymakers should learn one lesson from the long, sluggish recovery from the Great Recession, it is that cutting public spending, particularly by state and local governments, is a recipe for prolonged economic pain. My colleague Josh Bivens has described in detail how the state and local austerity of the early 2010s was both an unprecedented cutback in public spending following a recession and directly to blame for the slow pace of recovery.

Unfortunately, facing massive projected losses in revenue as the coronavirus has forced them to lock down their economies, many state and local governments are already cutting critical services and laying off staff. The April jobs report showed that nearly 981,000 state and local public-sector jobs have already been lost. To put that in perspective, that’s more than all the state and local public-sector jobs lost in the Great Recession and its aftermath.

As shown in Figure A, the peak for state and local government employment occurred in July 2008. As state and local budgets deteriorated throughout that year, governments began cutting services and staff. When the recession officially ended in June 2009, lawmakers in many states were already cutting jobs, choosing to slash budgets rather than pursuing new revenues. These cuts accelerated in 2010 as relief funding from the federal recovery act dried up, and they continued for several years, particularly in many states where conservative lawmakers took control following the 2010 elections. The result was a loss of nearly 800,000 state and local public-sector jobs by July 2013.

Figure A

April’s state and local government job losses were larger than the entirety of cuts in the Great Recession: State and local government employment (in thousands), December 2007–April 2020

State and local actual
2007-12-01 19620
2008-01-01 19650
2008-02-01 19670
2008-03-01 19691
2008-04-01 19695
2008-05-01 19726
2008-06-01 19758
2008-07-01 19801
2008-08-01 19801
2008-09-01 19769
2008-10-01 19777
2008-11-01 19782
2008-12-01 19781
2009-01-01 19793
2009-02-01 19781
2009-03-01 19763
2009-04-01 19755
2009-05-01 19757
2009-06-01 19762
2009-07-01 19695
2009-08-01 19712
2009-09-01 19625
2009-10-01 19681
2009-11-01 19691
2009-12-01 19651
2010-01-01 19631
2010-02-01 19604
2010-03-01 19595
2010-04-01 19585
2010-05-01 19580
2010-06-01 19547
2010-07-01 19518
2010-08-01 19475
2010-09-01 19378
2010-10-01 19431
2010-11-01 19421
2010-12-01 19396
2011-01-01 19384
2011-02-01 19339
2011-03-01 19315
2011-04-01 19314
2011-05-01 19258
2011-06-01 19304
2011-07-01 19187
2011-08-01 19167
2011-09-01 19137
2011-10-01 19148
2011-11-01 19129
2011-12-01 19118
2012-01-01 19113
2012-02-01 19119
2012-03-01 19115
2012-04-01 19105
2012-05-01 19088
2012-06-01 19106
2012-07-01 19098
2012-08-01 19096
2012-09-01 19103
2012-10-01 19079
2012-11-01 19074
2012-12-01 19081
2013-01-01 19063
2013-02-01 19075
2013-03-01 19076
2013-04-01 19075
2013-05-01 19089
2013-06-01 19069
2013-07-01 19054 
2013-08-01 19077
2013-09-01 19082
2013-10-01 19091
2013-11-01 19097
2013-12-01 19079
2014-01-01 19078
2014-02-01 19094
2014-03-01 19105
2014-04-01 19125
2014-05-01 19104
2014-06-01 19166
2014-07-01 19170
2014-08-01 19120
2014-09-01 19162
2014-10-01 19182
2014-11-01 19192
2014-12-01 19204
2015-01-01 19215
2015-02-01 19231
2015-03-01 19222
2015-04-01 19242
2015-05-01 19259
2015-06-01 19261
2015-07-01 19294
2015-08-01 19300
2015-09-01 19281
2015-10-01 19297
2015-11-01 19315
2015-12-01 19321
2016-01-01 19346
2016-02-01 19366
2016-03-01 19397
2016-04-01 19401
2016-05-01 19405
2016-06-01 19387
2016-07-01 19486
2016-08-01 19465
2016-09-01 19496
2016-10-01 19488
2016-11-01 19491
2016-12-01 19491
2017-01-01 19487
2017-02-01 19506
2017-03-01 19514
2017-04-01 19530
2017-05-01 19524
2017-06-01 19540
2017-07-01 19554
2017-08-01 19555
2017-09-01 19564
2017-10-01 19566
2017-11-01 19601
2017-12-01 19587
2018-01-01 19554
2018-02-01 19613
2018-03-01 19611
2018-04-01 19619
2018-05-01 19639
2018-06-01 19663
2018-07-01 19664
2018-08-01 19689
2018-09-01 19685
2018-10-01 19680
2018-11-01 19675
2018-12-01 19686
2019-01-01 19695
2019-02-01 19699
2019-03-01 19713
2019-04-01 19730
2019-05-01 19725
2019-06-01 19724
2019-07-01 19756
2019-08-01 19780
2019-09-01 19793
2019-10-01 19801
2019-11-01 19809
2019-12-01 19832
2020-01-01 19859
2020-02-01 19878
2020-03-01 19831
2020-04-01 18850 
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Note: Shaded area denotes recession.

Source: Current Employment Statistics data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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It’s critical to note, however, that not every state was cutting staff and services during this time. From July 2008 to July 2013, 18 states either preserved or grew their state and local public-sector workforces—keeping teachers, police, firefighters, nurses, and other critical service providers on the job. As shown in Figure B, the 18 states that did not make cuts tended, on average, to grow their public-sector workforce by 3.3%, while 32 states and the District of Columbia cut their state and local public-sector workforce (S&L) by an average of 4.1%. States that preserved or grew their public-sector workforce fared much better coming out of the recession, with fewer job losses overall, fewer private-sector job cuts, less growth in unemployment, and faster job growth as the recovery took hold.

From July 2008 to July 2013, total nonfarm employment shrunk by 1.7% in states that cut their state and local workforce, yet grew slightly (0.6%) in states that preserved or grew their state and local public sector. Of course, total nonfarm employment includes state and local government workers, so it’s important to consider the employment changes strictly in the private sector. The pattern is the same: On average, states that kept teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other public-sector workers on the job essentially maintained the same level of private-sector employment over this period. In contrast, states that cut state and local government employment lost, on average, 1.3% of jobs outside of state and local government.i

Figure B

States that cut their public-sector workforce had deeper job losses overall and in the private sector: Change in state and local government, total nonfarm, and private employment, July 2008–July 2013

Preserved S&L public sector Cut S&L public sector
Average change in S&L jobs (average of individual states) 3.3% -4.1%
Average change total nonfarm employment 0.6% -1.7%
Average change private sector 0.1% -1.3%
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Notes: Excludes values for North Dakota, where the oil and gas boom caused abnormally large job growth. North Dakota grew its state and local public sector workforce during this period. Including it raises the average change in total nonfarm for states that preserved their state and local public sector to 1.7% and the average change in private employment to 1.5%.

Source: Economic Policy Institute analysis of Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS) form the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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This loss in nongovernment jobs isn’t all that surprising given that for every dollar spent by state and local governments, more than half of the resulting economic activity occurs in the private sector. States and local governments that lay people off are not only adding those workers to the unemployment rolls, they are also threatening private-sector jobs that depend upon the spending of public-sector staff.

Analyzing differences in unemployment rate changes is a little less straightforward than job numbers since workers giving up looking for work can lower unemployment. Still, states that cut state and local public-sector jobs did experience larger increases in unemployment, on average, than states that preserved their public sectors. From July 2008 to July 2013, the unemployment rate rose by an average of 1.6 percentage points in states that cut state and local public-sector jobs, while only growing 1.2 percentage points in states that preserved those jobs.

Federal aid to states in the wake of the recession was woefully inadequate, yet state lawmakers’ decisions on how to respond to budget shortfalls—cutting staff and services or seeking new revenues—contributed to two fairly distinct trajectories of state recovery. Figure C shows the different job growth trajectories for states that cut their state and local government services and staff versus states that preserved or grew their state and local workforce. From June 2009 to June 2015, states that preserved or grew their state and local public workforce averaged total nonfarm job growth of 8.8% and 10.5% growth in the private sector. In contrast, states that cut their public sectors averaged total nonfarm growth of only 6.2%, with 8.2% growth in the private sector.

Figure C

States that cut their public-sector workforce had slower recoveries: Change in state and local government, total nonfarm, and private employment, June 2009–June 2015

Preserved S&L public sector Cut S&L public sector
Average change in S&L jobs (average of individual states) 2.9% -3.6%
Average change total nonfarm employment 8.8% 6.2%
Average change private sector 10.5% 8.2%
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Notes: Excludes values for North Dakota, where the oil and gas boom caused abnormally large job growth. North Dakota grew its state and local public sector workforce during this period. Including it raises the average change in total nonfarm for states that preserved their state and local public sector to 9.5% and the average change in private employment to 11.4%.

Source: Economic Policy Institute analysis of Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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We can see the same trend looking at individual states, illustrated in Figure D. The more a state cut their state and local public-sector workforce, the fewer private-sector jobs they tended to add in the first six years of the recovery.ii

In fact, states that maintained their public-sector workforce recovered more than a year and a half faster than states that made cuts. Public-sector-preserving states went from their total nonfarm job trough back to their pre-recession level of employment in 49 months, on average. For public-sector-cutting states, it took an average of 68 months.

Figure D

Large cuts to the public sector went hand-in-hand with slower private-sector job growth: Change in private-sector employment relative to change in state and local government employment, June 2009–June 2015

State and local govt. change (%) Private employment change (%)
LA -11.60% 8.80%
MI -8.80% 14.30%
PA -8.40% 6.20%
NH -8.20% 6.90%
NJ -6.00% 4.80%
NM -5.00% 4.10%
ME -5.00% 4.40%
CT -4.90% 4.90%
GA -4.80% 12.40%
RI -4.60% 7.10%
AZ -4.20% 10.80%
FL -3.60% 14.80%
MO -3.20% 5.80%
OH -3.10% 9.20%
IL -2.90% 7.60%
NY -2.80% 11.70%
MS -2.60% 5.10%
NV -2.50% 11.60%
WI -2.40% 7.20%
KS -2.10% 5.90%
AR -1.90% 5.90%
AL -1.90% 5.00%
NC -1.70% 10.90%
CA -1.40% 13.40%
ID -1.10% 12.90%
WV -0.90% 1.70%
IN -0.80% 11.80%
VA -0.50% 6.50%
MD -0.40% 6.10%
HI -0.20% 9.70%
IA 0.40% 7.10%
AK 0.60% 8.90%
SC 0.70% 13.10%
MN 0.70% 9.70%
OK 0.80% 8.00%
TN 0.90% 12.90%
NE 1.20% 7.10%
MT 1.70% 9.20%
SD 1.80% 7.60%
TX 2.00% 17.80%
WY 2.10% 4.30%
VT 2.10% 6.20%
WA 2.80% 11.90%
OR 3.50% 12.90%
DC 3.50% 13.90%
KY 4.00% 8.60%
MA 4.30% 10.20%
DE 5.10% 8.40%
CO 7.80% 14.80%
UT 12.00% 17.50%
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Notes: Excludes values for North Dakota, where the oil and gas boom caused abnormally large job growth. North Dakota grew its state and local public sector workforce during this period. Including it would skew the trend line even more positive.

Source: Economic Policy Institute analysis of Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

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No one knows when the threat of the coronavirus will subside, but mitigating the economic hardship caused by the pandemic is within lawmakers’ control. States’ experience in the Great Recession and its aftermath offers a clear cautionary tale of how not to respond to an economic downturn and large drop-offs in revenue. The best thing that lawmakers can do to bolster an economic recovery—whenever that is possible—is to preserve the critical public services that keep local economies running. Congress must send aid to state and local governments to ease the budget shortfall that states and localities are facing because of the pandemic. At the same time, state lawmakers should seize this moment to reform tax systems whose regressive designs in many states exacerbate inequality, which—on its own—hinders growth. State lawmakers should establish new, progressive sources of revenue that can support strong public services, make state tax systems more equitable, and are better able to recover from future recessions.

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i.  All the values in these calculations exclude data for North Dakota. During this period, North Dakota experienced a boom in natural gas production that caused an enormous, atypical increase in jobs. Over this period, North Dakota grew their state and local public-sector workforce; including it skews the averages significantly upward.

ii.  There is undoubtedly some two-way causality here. Just as cuts to the public sector lead to less private-sector consumption, declining private-sector jobs lead to lower tax revenues which lead to cuts to the state and local public sector. Yet looking at lagged changes during the period of large state and local public-sector cuts does show the same overall trend. For example, examining private-sector job changes from June 2011 to June 2012 relative to state and local job changes from June 2010 to June 2011 presents a similar picture. Moreover, if private-sector job loss were driving cuts to the public sector, policymakers would need to take action to break that cycle, and stabilizing demand through expanded public spending is typically the simplest way to do just that.