Publisher's Perspective

Probably you’ve seen enough comparisons of federal versus private sector compensation to take them with an entire shaker of salt. So, a natural reaction to a recent poll showing that on average federal employees are “thriving” more than private sector workers would be that it’s just another in a series of reports with the thinly veiled motive of attempting to prove that feds are overpaid.

But the poll, conducted by the Gallup organization, is more nuanced and shows, on a closer reading, the value of federal employee benefits and that employees recognize that value.

It found that 44 percent of federal workers consider themselves to be “thriving” compared to 39 percent who say they are “struggling” and 17 percent “suffering.” Those figures actually are pretty grim, but the private sector figures are even worse—34, 42 and 24 percent, respectively.

In the poll, “thriving” was defined as well-being that is strong and consistent, “struggling” as well-being that is moderate or inconsistent, and “suffering” as well-being that is low and inconsistent.

The notable thing about the report based on the poll is not that it concluded that federal pay is excessive. Rather, it pointed out that the differences between the two sectors are consistent across income levels. That is, among persons whose monthly income was between $2,000 and $3,000, the difference of those considering themselves thriving was 11 points, compared to the 10 overall. Among those with monthly incomes between $7,500 and $10,000, it was that same 10 points.

The difference also was essentially consistent across educational levels, ranging from 8 to 11 points.

Said the report: “Financial well-being is not necessarily related to absolute income, but rather to approaches to saving and spending and future expectations of job security, among other subjective factors. The survey data indicate that working for the federal government is associated with higher financial well-being when compared with other U.S. workers, holding across income and education levels.”

One important factor, it said, is that the government “guarantees and regulates benefits so federal workers can feel secure that something unexpected will not affect their well-being.”

The report didn’t go into detail on what exactly about benefits makes federal employees feel more secure, but surveys of federal workers, the most recent one taken two years ago, show clearly that the main factors are retirement and health insurance. That includes the TSP as well as the defined benefit program, health insurance coverage in general and continued health insurance coverage in retirement (with the employer contribution continuing) in particular.

It’s no coincidence that those are the very benefits that have eroded the most in the private sector in recent decades—although generally speaking 401(k) plans, which in many cases are the only retirement benefit those workers get, if any—are about comparable to the TSP.

Another factor is the stability of your employer; if that is shaky, you feel vulnerable. As the report put it, “the fact that over 50 percent of the working population work for small businesses means that if those small business are not thriving, those employees may not be reporting high levels of financial well-being.”

The government is not as good an employer as a lot of those outside it make it out to be. It froze salary rates for three years and the two raises since have each been 1 percent. It has increased required contributions toward retirement for newly hired employees and Congress is seriously considering doing the same for all employees. The government does lay people off, although not a lot, and there are various indignities to be suffered in federal employment, including the perception by some that it is a cushy gig.

But that aside, there’s one thing about federal employment that should give you at least some confidence: if there’s one employer that’s truly too big to fail, it’s the federal government.