USA Today’s Ham-fisted Public Workers Story

USA Today runs a poor story this morning that says its analysis finds that government workers make more in total compensation (wages plus benefits) than private-sector workers in forty-one states.

And so it does, but this is a case when stats are very misleading.

Amazingly, USA Today doesn’t take into account factors like education that account for the differences in government and private-sector pay. This is a basic flaw, and one that’s hard to figure after all the other stories we’ve seen about this topic. This is just hamfisted here:

Wisconsin is typical. State, city and school district workers earned an average of $50,774 in wages and benefits in 2009, about $1,800 more than in the private sector.

While USA Today does nod to a criticism of this kind of superficial “analysis,” it’s still not good enough—at all:

Economist Jeffrey Keefe of the liberal Economic Policy Institute says the analysis is misleading because it doesn’t reflect factors such as education that result in higher pay for public employees.

As we saw the other day, a lot of those public employees are, say, teachers. Teachers have to have college degrees. People with college degrees get paid more on average than people without college degrees. Nationwide, 54 percent of government workers have at least a four-year degree compared to just 35 percent of private-sector workers.

It’s comparing apples to oranges to run numbers like USA Today does here without putting them in proper context.

Dean Baker shows how silly this analysis is with a good point:

The gap in compensation (pay and benefits) highlighted in the USA Today article could be eliminated if governments made a point of replacing work that is often contracted to outside businesses (e.g. cafeterias in government buildings, custodial work in government buildings and groundskeeping on government properties) with government employees. By increasing the ratio of less educated workers to more highly educated workers (e.g. teachers, nurses, and doctors) state governments can eliminate the sort of pay gap that concerns USA Today.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,