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June 21, 2016

Shocker: Number of Federal Employees Nearly the Same After 50 Years


Not many things shock me these days, but this did: The number of federal employees, excluding the military, is nearly the same today as it was 50 years ago.
If someone had asked me to speculate, I would have guessed that the number of federal employees had doubled, maybe tripled, over the past half a century. Not so.
According to the St Louis Federal Reserve Bank, there were 2.78 million federal employees in May. But in May of 1966 there were nearly 2.66 million federal employees.  
And the trend was up in the 1960s; by May of 1969, the federal workforce had jumped up to 2.88 million employees—more than today.
(Note: There was a significant but temporary jump in the number of federal employees at the end of each decade related to the census. Once the census was done, the number fell as fast as it rose.)
Ready for another shocker: The federal government grew throughout the Reagan years, from 2.96 million in January of 1981 to 3.16 million in January of 1989, but shrank throughout the Clinton years, from 3.1 million in January of 1993 to 2.75 million in January of 2001.
Interestingly, the legislative and judicial branches grew much faster percentage-wise than the executive branch. The Office of Personnel Management reveals that those two branches combined nearly doubled—from about 33,000 to about 63,000.
By contrast, uniformed military personnel declined by more than half, from 3.1 million in 1966 to 1.46 million in 2014, according to OPM.
What makes the executive branch numbers so remarkable is the fact that the federal government is involved in so many more areas today. In 1966 the feds were just beginning to staff up for Medicare and Medicaid, which passed in 1965, and for President Johnson’s welfare initiatives.
So what gives? Some former OPM employees suggested that the federal government contracts more work these days and that the coming of desktop computers dramatically improved productivity.
With respect to the first, it’s hard to know. The Congressional Budget Office says there are no good statistics on how many outside contractors the government uses, though added “federal agencies spent over $500 billion for contracted products and services in 2012.”  Total federal revenue in 1966 was only $689 billion.
On the second point, the number of federal employees peaked about 1992—as computers and information technology were becoming more widely accepted and adopted.
Of course, the fact that the number of federal employees has remained nearly the same for 50 years says nothing about federal spending, regulations and intrusion into our lives. In those areas the federal government has exploded.


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