US & Canada

Has the US federal workforce really 'dramatically increased'?

US postal worker Image copyright Getty Images

The White House has ordered a federal recruitment freeze because the number of government employees has grown "dramatically". Is that true?

President Trump's press secretary was always going to face intense scrutiny in his first briefing to the White House press corps.

Not just because it was his first official briefing, but because his disputed claims over the weekend about the size of the inauguration crowd had prompted so much criticism.

It's unfortunate then that Mr Spicer didn't get through his opening statement at Monday's briefing without offering up another assertion that appears to be easily disproved.

Announcing the president's executive order to freeze hiring in the executive branch of government, Mr Spicer said: "This memorandum counters the dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years."

Certainly if there HAD been a dramatic increase in the number of people working for the federal government in recent years, then a hiring freeze might counter that and its effects.

The only problem is that there hasn't been such an increase.

Obviously Mr Spicer's use of the word "recent" is open to interpretation but one assumption might be that he's referring to the previous administration.

And if you look at the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it shows you that in January 2009 the federal government employed 2,786,000 people.

In December 2016, it employed 2,804,000. This is an increase of less than 1%.

It's also worth noting that under Obama's predecessor, George W Bush, there was also NO sign of much increase.

The number of government workers remained steady between 2.7 and 2.8 million.

On the chart you can see there was one big spike in 2010, but it was just that - a spike, ie, the number shoots up and then back down very quickly.

That's easily explained - it was the hiring of hundreds of thousands of temporary workers to help carry out the Census. It happens every 10 years. So that's unlikely to be what lies behind talk of a dramatic increase.

Image copyright Getty Images

The written statement from the White House about the executive order gives a clue as to what might.

After making the same assertion about a "dramatic increase" the statement says: "The federal workforce has expanded significantly during the last two administrations, from approximately 1.8 million federal civilian employees during the Clinton administration to approximately 2.1 million as of 2016 (an increase of nearly 17%)."

We know those simply aren't the numbers the BLS comes up with when it counts federal government employees.

They are, however, in line with the numbers the BLS arrives at when it counts all federal government workers EXCEPT postal workers.

With a workforce of over 600,000, the US Postal Service is indeed a large group of government employees all on its own, but it's not clear why they would be counted separately.

So far the Trump administration hasn't explained why, or even confirmed that they're the ones being left out of its calculations.

But without some significant caveat, it is simply untrue that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people employed by the federal government any time in recent decades, much less years.