State and Local Jobs Under Siege as a Middle-Class Gateway

Short of money, many states have also privatized services like managing public water systems, road repair, emergency services or prisons, transferring jobs from the public sector to private companies that have reduced salaries and benefits to increase their profits.

The government employment pinch especially hurts in small and rural counties, where President Trump and other Republicans are popular. These areas tend to lack the number and diversity of private employers found in larger cities, and are therefore more dependent on government jobs.

Oklahoma is one of several Republican-led states where persistent anti-tax sentiment and severe budget cuts have guided policymaking, particularly since 2010, when many candidates supported by Tea Party voters won local offices.

Then, the newly elected governor, Mary Fallin, led the charge to reduce the state’s top income-tax rate and shrink the tax on oil and gas production to 2 percent from 7 percent for new wells. But a sharp drop in oil and gas prices in 2014 delivered an unexpected wallop. Tax revenue evaporated, leaving huge budget shortfalls since then.

Justin Fortney, 41, was one of 200 employees laid off by the state health department this year. “It’s getting more difficult to be a public employee — whether that’s a teacher or public health officer — and see yourself as part of a thriving middle class,” he said.

Mr. Fortney, who lives with his wife and son in Guthrie, 30 miles north of the capital, was forced to start job hunting. “We always made it work,” said Mr. Fortney, who was employed by the state for 12 years and earned about $50,000 annually. “But if you’re going to choose to be a public servant, you have to have in mind that you will live in a small home and drive a sometimes unreliable vehicle.”

He said he worried that talented workers will opt for the private sector. Staffing shortages are common in states across the country.

In Houston, pinched by a property tax cap, the police chief has said his department is short 1,500 to 2,000 officers. In North Carolina, a federal report blamed a 25 percent job vacancy rate at a state prison in Elizabeth City for four deaths that occurred during a breakout attempt.

Back in Oklahoma, state prisons are at 153 percent capacity, while the corrections department has lost a tenth of its staff since 2009. “Our folks are only armed with their self-defense training, a can of pepper spray, and a wing and a prayer that someone will come and help them if they get in trouble,” Joe Allbaugh, the director of the corrections department, has said publicly.

Since 2009, staffing at the state mental health department in Oklahoma is down more than 20 percent, and at the Office of Juvenile Affairs by nearly a quarter. The state Office of Fire Marshal once employed 30 workers, but now has 18.

A report on 2017 state compensation in Oklahoma found that average salaries were 27 percent lower than for comparable jobs in the private sector.

Many government workers take a second job to make ends meet. Eldon Johnson, 40, who cares for children with cerebral palsy and autism at a group home in Norman, works from 2:45 to 10:45 p.m., earning $12.50 an hour, less than some clerks at 7-Eleven. He then drives directly to his better-paying second job at a private mental health center, where he works until 8 a.m.

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