In a visit to Columbus, Ohio, Wednesday, President Obama met with a family that embodies the interplay between government and the private sector – and the president could cast that relationship in a positive light.
At a time when America's economy is still struggling for traction, Joe Weithman is an architect who has some extra work thanks to federal stimulus spending on a police station. And his wife, Rhonda Weithman, was able to keep her health insurance after a layoff, thanks to federal help that Mr. Obama pushed for.
But this economic portrait, scripted into an outdoor "town hall" between the president and a small group of Ohioans, stands at odds with another reality – tension in some quarters of the electorate over whether private sector taxpayers are are bearing an unfair burden to support bloated government.
According to some studies, public sector workers enjoy higher pay and better benefits than their private-sector counterparts. And, at a time when Americans are seeing tax rates edge up and the level of federal debt soar, public-sector workers also enjoy much greater job security than the private sector.
A new poll this month suggests that Americans' political mouth on this subject may be where their money is.
Americans who identify themselves as Democrats tend to be less oriented toward the private sector in their employment, while Republicans have more jobs in the private sector, according to a TIPP poll, conducted by Technometrica Market Intelligence.
Republicans, meanwhile, tend to be more worried about the overall size of government, and about the potential for rising taxes, than Democrats.
The new poll also found that Republicans find the concept of working in government less appealing than Democrats do. Some 54 percent of Republicans say working for government has low appeal, and just 21 percent say the idea is very attractive. By comparison, 31 percent of Democrats feel negative about public-sector work, while 40 percent of Democrats say it's highly attractive.
The rift in actual employment is somewhat subtle. In both parties, the TIPP poll found that about 4 in 10 households have at least one person employed in the public sector. But Republicans have more private sector employment, with 63 percent of households citing at least one members privately employed, compared with 46 percent for Democrats.
Paying for public-sector jobs?
One recent review of government data, by the libertarian Reason Foundation, found that in 2009 "state and local government employees earned total compensation of $39.60 an hour, compared to $27.42 an hour for private industry workers -- a difference of over 44 percent." The overall figure includes 35 percent higher wages and 69 percent higher benefits.
Economists who study the issue warn that it's hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons. Some argue that, on balance, government employees have higher skills and may perform more demanding work than their private-sector counterparts. Others say private-sector workers may be the more productive ones, despite their lower pay.
The recession has highlighted a large job-security gap. The private sector saw a decade of job gains evaporate in the financial crisis and its aftermath, while employment in the public sector employment actually rose by about 100,000 jobs between the end of 2007 and this spring, according to the Reason Foundation report.
States have felt voter pressure to tighten their belts rather than raise taxes further. Some states have revised their benefit plans so that public employees will have to work a new more years before getting pensions in the future.