Politics Counts: The Public Sector Recession

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By some measures, the U.S. unemployment-scape looks like it is locked in a very slow recovery. The August jobs number – 96,000 created – is nowhere what’s needed to shrink the unemployment rolls — and it follows after months of similarly anemic figures.

But if you split the numbers differently, they actually look much worse. America’s public sector is still in a recession. In August 7,000 public sector jobs were lost and that follows 9,000 public sector jobs that were lost in July. Local government payrolls have been especially hard hit. Since 2009, more than 500,000 local government jobs have been lost.

That’s fewer teachers in the classroom and fewer police and road crews on the streets. But maybe more important in an election year, it makes for real economic hardship as jobs and the economy dominate the political discussion. That economic pain has not been spread evenly, and the way it’s been spread may have real implications in November.

Look closely at where the local government jobs have been lost (the red and beige counties on the map to the left) and you’ll notice some obvious patterns. Some electorally important states have gotten off fairly lightly — note Florida and Virginia. But in some key state battlegrounds the losses in public sector employment have been broad and far-reaching – see Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin.

The numbers may hold particular challenges for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. While persistent high unemployment overall is a serious drag for President Obama, as it is for all incumbents, high public sector unemployment can be challenging for Republicans.

Republicans don’t generally do well with public sector employees. After all, favoring smaller government is not a stance that generally wins the support of government workers. And the path to winning the votes of public sector employees has been made tougher for Republicans in 2012 by recent action by GOP governors in Wisconsin and Ohio aimed at limiting the power of public unions.

Just last week, the Fraternal Order of Police, one public sector union that often favors Republicans, announced it would not support anyone for president this year. The FOP, which backed the Republican presidential nominee in 2000, 2004 and 2008, reportedly was unhappy with Mr. Romney’s support of Ohio’s public union measure.

But, beyond that, the types of counties hit hard by the public sector job losses could be troubling to the GOP. For the rest of this Politics Counts column, please visit the Wall Street Journal's website.