State and local budget relief mostly helps private-sector workers

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, the American Jobs Act contains about $35 billion of extremely needed state and local budget relief. It also appears that this will be the first piece of the AJA to reach the Senate.

This is one of the most important pieces of the entire jobs package, and probably the most misunderstood.

First, it’s important to understand that this is not a “bailout,” as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would have you believe. State budget shortfalls have not been caused by fiscal mismanagement, but rather by the weakness of the national economy, over which any individual state has little power. But because they must balance their budgets, their budget cuts do collectively drag on economy-wide growth. In other words, the justification for state and local budget relief has little to do with helping governments themselves and everything to do with protecting the economy from harm.

Second, state and local budget relief is often criticized as only helpful to government workers. Again, wrong. It’s true that providing budget relief would lead to fewer layoffs of firefighters, police, and teachers. And that’s a great thing—it’s not like the recession has magically caused our streets to get safer, houses more fireproof, and students more self-taught. We still need these public services as much as ever before, and by skimping on them now in the name of budget austerity would just inflict needless pain.

But, according to research I conducted a few years back (research that’s unfortunately still extremely relevant), over 60 percent of the job impact of state and local budget relief would fall in the private sector. There are four primary ways in which state and local budgets in particular support private-sector jobs:

1) Transfer payments: A significant portion of state budgets goes toward transfer payments, such as Medicaid or unemployment benefits. These programs have some overhead costs, but the vast majority of these funds go straight into consumers’ pockets, who then spend the money in the private sector.

2) Private contracting: More and more work is being done on the local level not by government workers, but by private workers on public contracts. See those construction workers repairing that bridge on your way to work? They’re likely employed by a private contractor, but if the government cuts highway spending, poof! Their job is gone.

3) Equipment suppliers: While many services are subsidized or contracted out by the public sector—and thus actually provided by the private sector—others are provided in-house. Public safety and education come to mind. But the funds aren’t all spent on public employee salary and benefits—much of it is spent on equipment and materials as well. Firefighters need hoses and trucks, and teachers need books, computers, and chalk. Everyone needs office supplies. And all those goods are produced by private-sector workers.

4) Re-spending: The first three items in this list show how budget cuts can cause private-sector job loss. True, there will be public-sector job loss as well. But as all these workers lose their jobs—both private and public—they cut back on their spending on food, clothing, durables, and other consumer goods. And who provides consumer goods? Private-sector workers.

Viewing state and local budget relief as only affecting the public sector underestimates just how intertwined the public and private sectors really are. State and local governments are creating a substantial drag on economic growth because they’re being forced to cut back, and that economic slowdown is hurting everyone. Budget relief is thus a highly targeted and effective way to maintain public services and reduce joblessness, both public and private, throughout the economy.