The debate over whether government or private-sector work pays better has been raging for decades in the United States. Studies using different methodologies have been published both supporting and refuting that government workers tend to earn more. And while the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that government workers are indeed paid more on average than their private sector counterparts, the outlook really depends on what branch of government you work for and the type of occupation you pursue.
Government Workers Average More
As of May 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that on average, workers employed by federal, state and local governments made more than those employed by the private sector. Private sector employees in all industries reported an average salary of $44,600 per year. During the same period, government workers reported an average annual salary of $51,840 -- $7,240 per year more than private-sector employees.
Federal Workers Make the Most
While government workers tend to make more, there are significant disparities between the three levels of government. Local government employees earn the least, at an average of $47,360 per year in 2012 -- not much higher than the average private-sector employee. State employees did somewhat better, with an average annual salary of $50,570 per year. However, the federal government paid far more, with an average employee salary of $76,470 -- about $32,000 more per year than the average private worker.
Depends on Your Career
Whether you're more likely to be paid better in the public or private sector really depends on the type of job you want. Relatively low-paid workers typically fare better in the public sector. For example, food preparation workers average $20,650 per year in the private sector, and $23,630 in the public sector. However, many workers with high-paying jobs fare better in the private sector. Lawyers, for instance, average $101,270 in the public sector and $138,950 in the private sector. This is also true of physicians and surgeons, who average $160,080 when working for the government, and $194,660 when working for private hospitals and in private practice.
Public Workers Have More Benefits
In addition to higher average salaries, public sector employees tend to have more access to employee benefits. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 89 percent of local and state government workers had access to retirement benefits as of March 2013, compared to 64 percent of workers in private industry. Seventy percent of private workers had access to medical benefits, as opposed to 87 percent of state and local public workers. Public workers also tend to get better coverage: public employers covered an average of 87 percent of workers' health insurance premiums in 2013, while private employers covered an average of 79 percent.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: May 2012 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates for Private Industry Only
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: May 2012 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates for Federal, State and Local Government
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: May 2012 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates for Local Government
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: May 2012 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates for State Government
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: May 2012 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates for the Federal Executive Branch
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Employee Benefits in the United States, March 2013
- FCW: The Federal Pay Debate -- To Be Continued
- The Washington Post: Federal vs. Private Sector Pay -- No Comparison is Definitive, Auditors Say
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