Wisconsin one year later

We recently passed the one-year anniversary of the “uprising” in Wisconsin, which began with a governor allegedly trying to wrestle with state fiscal challenges, and quickly became the focal point for an outright attack on public sector workers. Underlying Gov. Scott Walker’s position was a belief that public sector workers were impeding the state’s economic performance. In the midst of draconian cuts to public sector employment, there emerged outlandish claims  that Wisconsin’s economy was leading the nation in job growth. No single month’s employment numbers should be relied on to tell the story of what’s happening in a state economy. But looking at the longer trend provided by year-over-year data is instructive.

Figure 1 Source:
EPI analysis of BLS data

EPI looks at state employment trends on a monthly basis (the most recent state level data are Jan. 2012 data). Looking comparatively at all states often tells an interesting story, but sometimes it’s good to drill a little deeper, or to look through a lens that examines regional trends.

As seen in Figure 1, overall non-farm employment since Jan. 2011 has rebounded in the Midwestern states surrounding Wisconsin, with Michigan leading the region with Jan. 2012 employment 1.6 percent higher than in Jan. 2011. Wisconsin stands out in the region, lagging with employment significantly lower — by 0.5 percent — in Jan. 2012 than a year earlier.

Figure 2 Source: EPI analysis of BLS data

While Figure 1 showed trends over the last year in overall employment, Figure 2 shows trends in private sector employment. Wisconsin appears to have returned to a “break even” point by Jan. 2012 (noting the caveat above that single month “trends” should be used with extreme caution), but it is still very clearly an outlier amongst its neighboring states.

Our colleagues at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy wrote in June that Gov. Walker should be neither credited (nor blamed) for employment trends that result from factors outside his influence. The trends we see above, however, are substantially within his influence.  We and others have cautioned repeatedly that states that close their budget gaps by laying off public sector workers do so at the peril of their overall economy. To be clear, we are not talking only of the fact that unemployed public sector workers will be added to state unemployment rolls (though they have been in states across the country), but that their ability to contribute to the economy is curtailed by their unemployed status. Because public sector workers are a vital part of every state economy—firefighters, teachers, police officers and department of health officials all buy clothing, groceries, and movie-tickets just like private sector workers—laying them off hurts us all by reducing economic activity, which holds back the recovery.

Fair-minded people would surely agree that we want our governments to make smart policy choices. The data above underscore the results of two policy choices. In one choice, the decision to rescue the auto sector, we see that the result is Michigan leading the region in employment growth. In the other choice, the decision to lay off thousands of public sector workers, we see that the result is Wisconsin lagging behind the region (indeed, the nation) in employment growth.