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As a percentage of the population, the U.S. government workforce is much smaller than 50 years ago

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Back in my school days, mathematics was not my strongest subject — which is why I sometimes try to redeem myself by fighting against certain glaring examples of innumeracy.

The following passage, which I ran across this morning on the Internet, is a case in point:

For much of our nation’s history, the federal government was quite small. In 1790, it had just 1,000 nonmilitary workers. In 1962, there were 2,515,000 federal employees. Today, we have 2,840,000 federal workers in 15 departments, 69 agencies and 383 nonmilitary sub-agencies.

This exponential growth has led to increasing power and independence for agencies.

It’s true, no doubt, that the federal government is now more powerful than it was in 1962. But it’s foolish to say that this increase in power can be measured by the growth of the federal workforce.

The big problem with the argument above is that, in reality, there has not been any “exponential growth” in the federal workforce since 1962.

The overall American population in 1962 was about 186 million. Today it’s about 312 million. That’s an increase of almost 68 percent.

But the increase in the federal workforce since 1962 — from 2.5 million to 2.8 million — is only 13 percent.

Putting it another way, in 1962, there was one federal employee for every 75 Americans. Today, there is one federal worker for every 111 Americans.

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6 Comments

  1. wilson

    Pat, I wonder if technology can explain it. I would have expected that today the numbers might be closer to one in three or four hundred Americans or more.
    How would you estimate technologies impact on the private sector?
    I have seen the mantra in the private sector “Do more with less” as layoffs continue each year. One day a tipping point will be reached and then what? Outsource’ more?
    I often wonder if the federal government’s is “spend more or we get less next year”

  2. wilson: There’s no doubt that technology allows government to do more with fewer people, just as in the private sector.

    But the argument with which I took issue in the post above says there has been “exponential growth” in the size of the federal workforce. That’s just not true.

    My point is that the argument was mathematically illiterate — or innumerate, as it were.

  3. Robert

    Speaking of technology replacing the workforce and thinking of the recent speech Obama gave on the usage of drones, the people of the world should start paying real close attention to the use of robots and the corresponding technologies. If you’re a mid to late boomer, I see the day when we have a robotic police force standing on every corner in the larger cities. Those same robots will be used as warriors in the military. That day is coming and sooner than we think. Right now we are getting used to video cams on street corners catching people who run red lights and doing normal and sometimes criminal activities, but soon those cams will be joined with an actual footed robotic workforce.

    There’s lots of money and effort going into the robotic age. AI, artificial intelligence, is growing by leaps and bounds. Many of the new robots will have emotions and be able to read other peoples emotional responses.

    These little hand held gadgets that people are becoming addicted to are how the new age of electronics will be the norm. In the future, most of the boomers will be gone by then, robots will be difficult to tell from real humans.

    The future may be fascinating to many people, but I liked it when the march towards modernity wasn’t as aggressive and fast changing. The technologies we see at the retail level now are about 15-20 years behind from what’s coming down the line.

    So what are all the people going to be needed for? Think about it?

  4. Craig Knauss

    Yes, technology is helping to shrink the government workforce, but don’t forget all the calls for privatization of government facilities. And many government agencies contract out work that was once done in-house. This is especially true for short duration projects, but can also apply to management of huge government facilities. For example, DOE contracts out the operation and maintenance of facilities such as the Hanford Site, Savannah River Site, and all of the government laboratories like Fermilab, Argonne, Idaho, Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, etc. Why employ a full-time, permanent government worker to do short duration projects when it can be contracted out? The hourly rate may be more, but for short duration projects the annual cost is less.

  5. expdoc

    “So what are all the people going to be needed for? Think about it?”

    Soylent green.

  6. Robert

    expdoc, You could have at least used a question mark instead of a period. You make it sound so affirming and definite.

    If life is imitating art and if 1984 is coming true (sure looks and feels like it), whose to say other futuristic science fiction movies won’t come true?

    When I look around where I live, I see lots of characters from Mad Max type movies. Tattoo’s and wraps covering huge portions of visible skin areas, body piercings in places that make me think “ouch”, small disk in ear lobes, multi-colored hair in wild styles, cars with all sorts of trinkets and recycled items glued to it, men in leather kilts that sways as they walk with beards and tie up sandals. Just last week there was a man sitting next to me at a restaurant dressed like an old time American Indian complete with a very short suede loin cloth, moccasins and what appeared to be a long narrow satchel for his arrows but didn’t see the bow. Then he got up and walked out the door and caught the bus. That was his look for the day. It’s all very normal here to see that kind of expression.

    I wonder if most here remember that movie, Soylent Green?

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