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Justin Fox

The Remarkable Steadiness of Federal Employment

The number of government jobs hasn't really changed in 40 years. Surprised?
Not much has changed.

Not much has changed.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

President Donald Trump's spending priorities would seem to imply big cuts in the federal workforce -- at least those parts of it that aren't engaged in defending the country (and even some that are). With the monthly jobs report out today, I thought it might be useful to put in context just how big that workforce is and how it has changed over the years.

Employment in the federal government totaled a seasonally adjusted 2.83 million in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's up slightly from 2.82 million in January, and 2.79 million when President Barack Obama took office in January 2009. Federal government employment hit its all-time peak in May 1990, at 3.34 million. That was partly because of temporary U.S. Census Bureau workers; in non-census years in the late 1980s and early 1990s the number was around 3.1 million. The federal government's share of total nonfarm payroll employment in February was 1.94 percent; that's about as low as it's been since the BLS started measuring in 1939 (the record low, set last April, is 1.93 percent).