Is Government Employment Down?

The Wall Street Journal claims federal employment, excluding postal workers, is the “lowest total in seven years” and includes the following chart.

Wall Street Journal chart

Because this is a surprising factoid, I posted it on Facebook. After receiving a comment that 1.6% is probably off by a decimal, I started to question the data. I headed off to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ web site to see if I could duplicate the WSJ’s chart.

Here is the BLS chart of federal employment excluding postal workers.

Federal employment excluding postal workers

This doesn’t match the Wall Street Journal’s chart, not even close. Yeah, there’s the huge bump for World War II, but the trends don’t match. This chart shows federal employment steadily increasing until the early ’90s instead of generally decreasing since the mid-’50s. That’s when I noticed that the Wall Street Journal plotted federal workers as a percentage of total non-farm employment, not as an absolute number.

So, what is total non-farm employment? Here is the BLS chart of non-farm employment, which shows a steady rise until the turn of the millennium.

Non-farm employment

Now, all I need is an easy way to divide the first chart by the second chart…

Getting both data series using the BLS series report tool wasn’t that hard. Nor was creating a spreadsheet that contained both and then dividing government employment by total non-farm employment. Surprise — the Wall Street Journal didn’t slip a decimal.1

Now for the chart I created:

WSJ Chart Recreated

Ha! Looks pretty close to the WSJ’s.2 Good to know. :-)

1At least, not in the chart. The WSJ article’s first paragraph reads, “21.9 million: The number of government workers in the U.S. in January, the lowest total in seven years.” That first number is off by a factor of ten. It should be 2.19 million.
2The blips every ten years in my chart are probably census employees, which the WSJ eliminated from its chart…somehow.

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8 Comments

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  1. Well done!

  2. Some very fine fact checking, dude! Except for the dropped magnitude in the first graf, you have restored my faith in the Fox Street Journal.

  3. Gary and Terresa, thanks! Gary, I found your comment in my spam folder… :-(

    Shelby, I still wouldn’t give the Wall Street Journal a pass.

    1. They bungled an order of magnitude in their lead sentence. If anything needed fact checking, it was that first number.
    2. Listing BLS as the data’s source doesn’t cut it. They should have listed the exact series they used for the data. Did they use seasonally adjusted data? How did they eliminate census employees from the data? They don’t say and I can’t tell.
    3. They also should have provide the data they used, including calculations, in spreadsheet form.

    I did both of the latter two. The graphs from BLS show the series used (I just did screen captures from the BLS site and they include the series) and I link the spreadsheet I used to calculate the percentages. Certainly a major publication could, and should, have done at least as much. After all, this is electronic publishing with no practical limits on space.

    Finally, is it accurate to imply that the federal government’s workforce is “slimming down” because it is growing more slowly than employment in general?

  4. Excellent work, if only I could get this quality of analysis on efforts in my company. ;-)

  5. John, haha! I bet I know someone… ;-)

  6. Just came across this (via Facebook); good stuff, and thanks for posting.

  7. Mike, thanks for the kinds words. My curiosity makes me verify unexpected claims. And I’m no fan of misleading graphs.

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