The Governing Elite vs. the Rest of Us

The truly revolutionary American idea of government as the servant of the people may be fading away. Many of today’s so-called “civil servants” are a protected, privileged class. While Middle America struggles through a difficult recession, a lot of government employees have lived on the gravy train.

Here are some facts to buttress that assertion:

Since the recession began in 2008, a period during which approximately eight million private-sector workers lost their jobs and millions more saw their income decline, the number of federal employees is increasing at a 7 percent per-year rate and their income is holding up quite nicely. According to the Cato Institute, the average federal worker’s pay and benefits now approximates $120,000 per year, or roughly double the compensation of the average private-sector employee. Factor out the lavish government fringe benefits and look at salary only, and the civil servant is still far ahead: $71,197 vs. $49,935.

During this recession, the percentage of federal employees earning annual base salaries above $100,000 increased from 14 to 19 percent. The number of Defense Department employees being paid more than $150,000 per year increased from 1,868 to 10,100. Before, the Department of Transportation had one employee with a salary above $170,000, but now has 1,690.

As a gesture toward fiscal responsibility, President Obama reduced what was supposed to be a 2.4 percent raise in federal salaries this year to 2.0 percent. That still compares quite favorably to the zero-percent cost-of-living increase that Social Security recipients’ have received.

Also on tap are handsome pay raises for the employees of the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA has distinguished itself recently by incurring a loss of $54 billion in a mismanaged home-loan business. And of course we can’t neglect to mention the CEOs of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, who have been cleared to receive as much as $6 million in salary this year while being subsidized to the tune of over $100 billion in monetary transfusions from the Treasury and the Fed.

Other federal agencies may not be losing money by the tens and hundreds of billions of dollars in such an obvious way, but money appropriated for them by Congress still seems to vanish into a black hole. For example, statistics from 2006 showed that if all the federal dollars spent by antipoverty programs had been given directly to Americans below the poverty line, a poor family of four would have received $67,000. The actual aid received by poor Americans is less than half that amount. What explains such glaring inefficiency? Most of those funds are consumed by the cushy pay packages of the army of bureaucrats who administer those programs. And let’s not even get into the Department of Agriculture, which has one bureaucrat for every nine or ten full-time farmers.

The preferential treatment received by government employees was also reflected in how last year’s stimulus money has been spent. According to ProPublica, the District of Columbia received more than four times as much money per capita as the average of the 15 states that received the most money. (Oh, did I mention that members of the Pelosi/Reid Congress voted themselves a 6 percent increase in funds for their staffs and other support?)

It isn’t just the federal government workers who have an unusually lucrative setup. Gov. Christie of New Jersey recently announced his intention to reform the pension plan for the Garden State’s public employees. Consider an incredible fact: According to Christie, a 49-year-old state employee who had contributed $124,000 toward his retirement is eligible to receive $3.3 million in pension payments and another half-million dollars in heath care benefits over the rest of his life; and a retired teacher who had put $62,000 toward her pension and not a penny for health care is scheduled to receive $1.4 million in pensions and $215,000 in health care benefits. Taxpayers pay for this.

This story is repeated over and over in a number of states that now teeter on the brink of bankruptcy due to billions of dollars of obligations to state employees. It’s hard to refer to these people — many of whom, of course, are wonderful, decent human beings — as civil “servants” when their salaries and/or benefits are so much higher than those of the taxpayers who pay for the generous compensation packages of their government “servants.”

Abraham Lincoln’s ideal of government “of the people, by the people, for the people” seems to have become government of the governing elite, by the governing elite, and for the governing elite. The current imbalance can’t continue. Something’s got to give.

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  • pegps

    While your general point may hold, I think these statistics need to be examined a little more closely. For example, your article states that “According to the Cato Institute, the average federal worker’s pay and benefits now approximates $120,000 per year, or roughly double the compensation of the average private-sector employee.” My question is what is the education level of the average federal employee compared to the average private sector employee? This can make a big difference in pay levels.


  • goral

    Good point pegps, I talked with a college grad. at a Christmas party who was traveling down to D.C. to pursue a gov’t job. Our brightest are either on Wall St. trading futures and ripping off the investors or in gov’t ripping off all taxpayers. The well educated know where the gravy train track is.

    The idea of public servants has already faded, Dr. Hendrickson. He who serves, rules. Our “servants” hold the power and are paid a premium for it.
    “Something’s got to give.” is exactly right.

  • jandjr5

    What Dr. Hendrickson leaves out are the facts about the lives of civil servants, many of whom I have had the privilege of knowing throughout my husband’s career in federal service. Many give up the fast track to those high salaries that is available to them in the private sector. When they earn them, it is after a much longer period of service than in any private sector job.

    Federal employees and their families make sacrifices for the American public that apparently have not been studied by the Cato Institute. Consider families who move frequently, and even to extremely remote parts of the world, far from the usual support networks of family and lifelong friends, adding stress to today’s already stressful family life, for the convenience of the government; civilians (not just military members) who put their lives on the line in Afghanistan and Iraq (and receive some monetary compensation for this, probably included without explanation in the Cato study. This sort of compensation does not even remotely equate to the risk taken); who give their time and talent to make our country a better place only to hear derogatory comments such as the snide “I’m from the government; I’m here to help.”

    In addition, some of those salaries are paid to employees who live in countries outside the U.S. with much higher costs of living, the adjustments in salary are made to allow the employee and his or her family to have a decent standard of living in these places (England and Japan come to mind). Others are compensated for living in places where no American would choose to live without additional compensation of some kind–the more dangerous places, with a high risk of ist attack or third world countries with high risk of disease and lack of basic services that we are accustomed to at home, where our ambassadors and other foreign service workers are helping to keep diplomatic relations stable.

    It is important to recognize areas of excess in government spending and to curb those expenditures, to ensure that the taxpayers’ contributions are spent wisely, but please do not write off all government workers, no matter how well-educated (and don’t we WANT well-educated people working for us in Washington and around the world??), so cynically as hopping on a federal gravy train. That is a disservice to the many, many employees and family members who make great sacrifices in the service of the people of the United States.


  • goral

    If this article was about public education, the equivalent of these comments would have been “if you think education is important, try ignorance”. It’s a way of deflecting the main thrust of the article with marginal and peripheral examples.

    Civil servants know at the time of their signing-on that their ultimate destination will not be Miami or El Paso, although these may be future assignments. They sign-on because Karachi or Machu Pichu interests them.

    Military members are excluded from this argument. We can’t pay them enough to put their lives on the line. It’s the overpaid public officials who take credit for their blood. How disingenuous to lump the heroes with the cowards.

    Police and Fire protection is also excluded. Judges are not excluded; they’re in the middle of this bloated bloody mess. Of course they consider themselves as the untouchables. India has theirs and we have ours.
    We also have wonderful, selfless and dedicated teachers who are underpaid while their administrators squander the bloated education budget.

    The point of the article is that this was not the intent of the Founding Fathers.

    In our Church we have the best example of this with JP2 and B16, the two Servants of the servants of God. Neither one of them wanted the positions, they wanted to retire to their native and beloved Fatherlands yet the Father picked a different land for them. Theirs was/is a life of acrimony, scandals, headaches and suffering, with no money in it.

    Let’s make a distinction between service and opportunism, and Servants and overpaid Beaurocrats.

  • goral

    I’m not educated enough to get the quote right the first time. It should say: “If you think education is EXPENSIVE…..”
    That quote deserves to be botched.

    Here’s one about our public servants-

    The more that learn to read the less learn how to make a living. That’s one thing about a little education. It spoils you for actual work. The more you know the more you think somebody owes you a living. ~Will Rogers

  • athanase

    As a nearly ten-year member of Dr. Hendrickson’s “governing elite”–a state civil servant–I found that it took me three years to net the take home pay I was making before I left the private sector, and that is on top of taking pay cuts in the private sector to keep or gain employment during company buyouts or failures due to mismanagement or lack of business. I agree that there has been unnecessary growth in functions of government, but I don’t think all government activities are a waste and I think many of us who sought public sector jobs sacrificed higher wages, respect among our peers, political liberties like endorsing candidates for political office with bumper sticker or yard signs, and receiving gifts and inheritances from family in regulated areas (the last two prohibited by strictly enforced civil service ethics rules) for more job security; broken state budgets are now leading to broken pledges of receiving state retirement and benefits. There is also a difference between the classified civil servant who is subject to the rules and the unclassified civil servant who is exempt from canceled merit increases (which are actually cost-of-living adjustments) and furloughs. Civil servants are additionally subject to the retaliation of elected officials who want to balance the budget on the backs of the classified workers (since they were caught trying to increase their own compensation) and the pundits in the media who want to run government “like a business”, but don’t want to pay the fees it costs for the program (assuming they want to keep it), or effectively want to abolish it, in which case one wonders if they are aware of what the program actually does. The public should take responsibility and elect capable individuals who will not over-promise what government cannot deliver, and who will not nose-dive the government and the economy into the ground.

  • With all due respect,athanase, you have used the word “sacrificed” where you should have used the word “traded.” It is truly sad that your trade has not worked out as you hoped it would. The same thing of course is true of all people who hoped that a certain educational or career move would position them securely, but who found out they were wrong.

    There is a this — that many know that the functions of government have expanded well beyond the constitutional mandate, but instead of fighting for a restoration of truly constitutional government they take the attitude of, “Hey, why not get mine while the getting is good.” Except that the “mine” they are getting is really ours — our taxes, all too often squandered.

    We will feel differently about civil servants when we start seeing some recommend the closing of their own agencies, departments, and programs for the true greater good.

  • jandjr5

    I did not mean to imply that I was including military members in my comments. Here’s a reference to some of the civil servants to whom I was referring. I recognize that they are few in number compared with deployed military members, but they should neither be forgotten nor left out of the general consideration of the quality or intent of our federal employees.


  • c-kingsley

    “Since the recession began in 2008, a period during which approximately eight million private-sector workers lost their jobs and millions more saw their income decline, the number of federal employees is increasing at a 7 percent per-year rate …”

    Even if you leave out the question of how much they’re getting paid, their JOBS are in no danger. I’ve heard that union membership is declining in the private sector, while it is growing in the government sector. Just keeping their jobs safe.

  • athanase

    Ms. Kochan, my American Heritage Second College Edition dictionary describes what I and other state public workers did when we “gave away at a loss” our opportunities in the private sector, etc. as a “sacrifice”; twenty-twenty hindsight reveals it to be a detrimental trade. But please don’t think I regret my service to my state. I sought to be a state worker (as opposed to obtaining federal employment) also because I have criticized, resisted and voted against advocates of the leviathan in Washington D.C., which was created violently and unconstitutionally by the individual cited in the last paragraph of Dr. Henrickson’s article, and which is supported by loans from Hu Jintao (to whom you, I and all other aggrieved taxpayers are sending tribute). My state would have had the resources then (and now) to support necessary and lawful public works for itself and lend aid to others had it been allowed to peacefully pursue its own destiny. History and opportunities have passed, but history and opportunities are not over. As Pope John Paul II proclaimed in his 1995 Easter message, may all nations realize their legitimate aspirations! And as the agencies, departments and programs end, may St. Joseph guide all public workers to better vineyards!

  • Amen, athanase.

    But when I said it was a trade, not a sacrifice, I was going by what you said — that you did it for job security. If you thought that having greater job security was not worth it, you wouldn’t have done it, right? I mean if the job security angle were not there when you made the decision, and you said to yourself, “I will take this cut in pay for the sake of serving my fellow man” then, yes, I would call that a sacrifice. But I stand by what I said. You made a calculated trade-off, not a sacrifice.

    I’m really sorry it did not turn out well for you and your family; you seem like a very dear soul — just like almost everyone here at CE. I hope for all our sakes that things get better.