Human Costs Involved In Budget Cuts

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

I “grew up” working in a hardware store in Fayetteville Georgia, a store our family bought just after I turned 13.  Before that time, my father was a federal government employee.  He spent the first 22 years of his professional life as an internal auditor, investigating and preparing fraud cases against those who chose to illegally appropriate taxpayer funds for personal uses.

While there were excellent benefits of being a career civil servant then, there was also the stigma that went along with being a federal employee.  At times, I know it grated on my father.  He didn’t let it bother him too much.  His work was honorable.  His co-workers were excellent people that became his lifelong friends.  My middle name, Burnham, was the surname of his boss when I was born – a man whom I was honored to know for almost three decades before his passing.

There was a certain security that went with being a federal employee that made up for the fact that wages would be a bit lower than private sector equivalent work, and that promotion opportunities would be few after a certain level was reached.  Still, Dad and his friends worked hard and traveled extensively catching and prosecuting those who would steal from the government.  After all, those people were stealing from all of us.

The general work environment changed over time.  Budget cuts made the work environment even more stressful.  More was asked from a department that was given less, and the tolerance for the occasional accounting irregularity or the acceptable explanation that it was just sloppy work grew frustrating.

Then, in the early eighties, there was talk of furloughs and pay cuts or freezes.  For those who remained in dad’s unit, the stress levels took their toll.  There were increasing stress induced illnesses.  Dad’s best friend at work retired early due to medical disability.  Just 8 years short of retirement, Dad decided it was best for him and our family that he move on and work in the private sector.

It wasn’t an easy choice, but one that he seemed to have little regret or willingness to look back.  It provided me and the rest of our family a very different connection with our town and a lot of great people and experiences we would have never had if Dad had just decided to grind out another 8 years.  Still, the process leading up to the decision and the work environment that was created to force the change was at a high cost to dad and the many good people he worked with at the time.

I say that to say this.  There will be a lot of talk of sequester going forward.  Many of the effects have been overstated, but that does not mean there will not be a human toll within the federal ranks.

Those of us that understand that there need to be cuts to federal spending should not make those working in federal positions our adversary.  Most are hardworking people and should not bear the blame that they are working within a system that is bloated and broken.  They have lives and families that will be affected by pay cuts and/or job terminations.

In a perfect world the best employees would be retained and placed on projects and programs that are the most needed and have the most positive impact for the taxpayers.  Instead, many of the cuts will be uniform and across the board.  In a system that strives for everyone to be equal, the pain will be shared among the most and least productive.

Federal employees are not the enemy.  Spending beyond our means is.  Some of the employees, however, will be the first to have to realize and acknowledge that changes that are best for the country will force them to make changes that are best for them.  This is never easy, whether working in the public or private sector.

Private sector companies downsize and reorganize regularly to meet the needs and conditions of the market as it exists.  We accept this as what must occur so that the company can survive. The Federal government must do the same.  But in pushing for this temporarily painful but necessary part of the process, let us all remember that there is a human cost to these changes, and be mindful of those who are affected.


  1. saltycracker says:

    Your father was on the wrong side of the Federal expansion – enforcement. We are passing complex laws to spend money while avoiding the costs and the resources to enforce abuse.
    In addition to unwillingness to enforce is appeasement for pay/conditions by promising employees more in their non-working future. Kicking the can.

    There is always human cost in a ponzi scheme and the second level players are not the architects.

    • seenbetrdayz says:

      You’ll get paid more to empty waste baskets at Robins Air Force Base than you will to manage a hardware store these days.

      It does make it hard to feel pity for civil service workers when you see them doing the same things you do but getting paid 150% as much.

  2. Shaw Staff says:

    The consequences of big government has finally caught up with the federal employee.
    Welcome to the party.

  3. Joshua Morris says:

    My dad had a long career as a federal employee as well–from the Naval Air Rework Facility in Jacksonville, FL, to the FAA and Federal Protective Service in Atlanta. He also was a US Army Reservist to boot. I remember some of the lean times of the early 80s, and I believe he spent a few days at home in the early 90s (I think?) when non-essential government was ‘shut down’. I also remember his large and expensive executive desk, stories of the $300+ office chairs for everyone in a department because one guy claimed he really needed it, vehicles being used for unauthorized personal jaunts, etc. Mom & Dad seem well taken care of in retirement by the Thrift Savings Plan. I know that the perks may not be as great now for the GS-8 to GS-12 or so crowd, but I still think they have it pretty good for the most part, compared to the private sector. They’ll be fine.

    The ‘enemy’ is the crowd receiving public welfare who don’t really need it. I feel like a broken record, but I’m gonna keep saying it–real budget reform will not happen until we cut mandatory spending.

    • seekingtounderstand says:

      A retired military man likes to brag about the special hotels, the special stores carring elite food at reduced rates, golf courses………… air travel while on vacation. Many have been receiving retirement/benefits for much longer than they ever served.
      I love those that serve but they have created a horrible situation for our country.
      People do not really know the truth.
      My uncle and family have gotten gold standard healthcare as he is a retiree from GA.
      At the same time private families have no health care or have watched it turn into expensive crappy care with high deductables……………………..
      We are out of kilter and its hurting our country……….
      Government employees have and the rest of us not so much.
      Charlies dad at least had the choice to quite his government job. My dad a marta bus driver was replaced due to race in the name of diversity. Except now Marta needs to be diversified by race in accourdance with the population of those who pay for it.

  4. Dave Bearse says:

    There will be as many private sector workers as government workers that take the brunt of the sequester, though it will take longer to for the impact to be felt. The economy is in such a precarious state that it could tip into recession and exacerbate deficits. It’s GOP-accepted collateral damage to the paramount objective of smaller government.

    • Harry says:

      Let’s begin to understand that government is engaged in causing damage, not controlling damage.

    • Three Jack says:


      Your point was brought home to me last night as a close friend informed me that she and her fellow employees will be on a furlough schedule for the near future. These are private sector jobs through an employer that relies mostly on defense related contracts to provide IT training services.

      Most stories have focused on what will happen to government workers without much attention being paid to the private sector jobs reliant upon military contracts. The difference in the two forms of employment is vast and I dare say the sequester will have far greater consequences to people in the private sector than public.

      Here is a Jon Stewart’s take on this latest debacle —

  5. Mike says:

    Neither grieve nor curse the government worker. As a former Federal employee, I can tell you that employees, whether civilian or uniformed, are hired for specific duties. While some take the jobs for a paycheck, others choose government service because they see an opportunity to serve their communities in some larger capacity. In either case, their jobs exist to fulfill certain services. If budgets are cut and government can no longer provide those services, then the jobs disappear also, as they should. The employees did not create their own jobs or set their own pay. That was done by those at the top of the management ladder; which in government, unlike the private sector, is determined through elections.

    The real area to watch is how changes in Federal spending affect the State of Georgia. Georgia is widely known as a low tax/low service state where people receive fewer services in return for lower taxes. What is less widely appreciated is how much of Georgia’s state budget is supplemented by Federal government transfer payments. State taxpayers in Georgia have been able to avoid some of the undesirable consequences of their low tax status by enjoying revenue collected at the Federal level and then passed through to the state. One advantage of that practice is that taxpayers can curse paying their Federal taxes and think poorly of the Federal government while still enjoying benefits that appear to be provided through state government.

    If Federal government spending cuts result in significant decreases in transfer payments to the state, then Georgia will have to absorb those cuts either by reducing even more of its services or by raising revenue to offset the Federal spending declines.

    That is the real area to watch over the next nine months.

    • seenbetrdayz says:

      Well, on the bright side:

      If Georgia raises the money then Georgia will decide how it is spent—Not some politician or worse, bureaucrat, on a federal highway committee from Alaska who spends 90% of his time in Washington and 0% of his time on Georgia highways.

      Not saying that GA DOT are saints, but at least they have to actually live in the communities they screw over.

  6. Scott65 says:

    There were a couple of things that struck me about this…first you say that the 80’s were when things started to do downhill with government cuts and stress levels rising. Would that be when Regan was President? The other thing is this living beyond our means crap…and it is crap. We are a sovereign currency nation…we will not go broke. The debt crisis is made up by people with an agenda. Ed Rendell, Steve Ratner, Joe Scarborough …will get on TV and say we are doomed by debt. What they dont disclose is that “Fix the Debt” is an AstroTurf think tank paid for by Pete Peterson, and Ratner is on the board of the Peterson Institute on top of that! (Note this list was quite bipartisan). There is no evidence that the debt is a problem as signaled by the markets. TIPS -The yield on 10-year TIPS is -0.26%. That says the market does not anticipate interest rates are going to be higher and inflation will be low in the next 10 years. The cries of hyperinflation coming from those who pretend to be economists (and are not) are wrong, have been wrong, and will be wrong. The best way to bring down the debt is to grow out of it, not cut your way (which makes the debt bigger btw)…and that means smart spending. All the government cutbacks are taking money directly out of the private economy…DIRECTLY. One dollar of government spending= one dollar of private sector surplus. This “living beyond our means” soundbite is wrong, dangerous, and hampering growth. I challenge ANY of you to provide any hard evidence that I am wrong. Hopefully we wont have to wait for the economy to tank…I told you so wont seem very constructive…but will be true

    • Charlie says:

      You do realize that we’re the ones (via the Fed) that are buying those bonds that are keeping the rates artificially low. When the US government is both the market maker and taker it is hard to say that “the markets” are sending signals.

      We are at a unique point in time where there was a collapse in the money supply which followed the banking system collapse of 2008. Pretending that we can print currency in perpetuity like we have done the last 5 years is assinine.

      Please don’t talk about markets or economics while at the same time revealing abject ingnorance of how either works.

      • Ghost of William F Buckley says:

        There are deeper economic issues, with global implications involved.

        Globally, US Treasuries are the best investment for foreign nations because they don’t suck as badly as other Forex asset classes, hardly a recommendation.

        Today, Fed Chair Bernake signaled both his departure date and that interest rates will rachet up once unemployment reaches 6.5%. Most mainstream economists expect minimum unemployment of 5% as a floor. 5% is due to ‘transitional effects;’ people change jobs, join, and leave the workforce.

        Currently, unemployment (using the gov’t inaccurate rating) hovers in the 8% range. That means the Fed will pressure interest up when unemployment drop another 1.5%, which is hardly what we’d call ‘boom times.’

        My point is there is not enough growth in the economy available to right our economic ship without a combination of smart spending cuts and some types of revenue increases.

        That was the messaging provided by Peterson Foundation as they hosted one of the GOP Presidential debates, last year, some may recall. Peterson did a real cute set of commercials using grade school kids to explain the ‘dismal science’ behind their message.

        Which gets to Paul Broun.

        Today, Cong. Broun clearly stated BOTH Parties are complicit in running the US economic train over a cliff. Broun further urges Citizens to implore Congress to do what is needed to resolve issues of National importance.

        We are witnessing the end of a 30 year economic Greed cycle. It took this long to approach a horrible economic event horizon. Consequently, it will take some time to avert an inevitable, tragic outcome.

        I remain hopeful both sides are able to realize the truth in what Broun said today. It eclipses other comments he has made, even if the comment were made in light of his bid on Saxby’s seat.

    • Noway says:

      Scott, your ‘sovereign’ argument is tired. Anyone who has taken Econ 1, not 101, or anyone with even a smattering of common sense, will tell you that the more of something you have the less it is valued. Housing market? Too many houses leads to lower prices. Oil? The more oil on the market the less we pay at the pump. There is no freaking way you can tell us that being 16 trillion in debt is ok because we can fire up the printing press will make everything alllllll better.

      One thing is 100% certain. We will never be able to pay back what we owe. Ever. And with real liabilities out there approaching 100 trillion, you keep on whistling past that grave yard.

      We will go bankrupt because no one will ever cut anything and just like you advocate, we will, indeed, print more, thereby making each dollar we have or earn be worth less. That point is fact and not subject to debate.

  7. Trey A. says:

    Nice column, Charlie. We all suffer when the best and brightest are disincentivized to work in the public sector.

    We need cuts, but smart ones.

    I recently heard a prominent economist speak about his outlook for China over the next 20 years. The single biggest advantage China has, he said, is that its best and brightest young people strive to land government jobs. The Chinese government is full of innovators–the equivalent of Harvard MBAs are in line to land public sector jobs. They are the most prestigious, powerful and some of the best paying gigs in the entire country. Even though the country has mounting challenges, the country’s best are lined up to solve these problems. That is not the case in America. Not even close.

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      “Even though the country has mounting challenges, the country’s best are lined up to solve these problems. That is not the case in America. Not even close.”

      …You’re being very nice as, unfortunately, that seems to be a vast understatement.

    • Ghost of William F Buckley says:

      China has had an 8,000 year history of making government service the most prestigious work to be had.

      Only undertakers are lower on the social scale than lawyers in feudal China!

      If only the didn’t go all Commie in 1949, it ruin’t everything.

    • Joshua Morris says:

      Are you really offering China as an example we should follow? I don’t know of anyone trying to immigrate there for wealth and opportunity. Do you?

      • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

        …No one except big American corporations looking to take advantage of “lax” labor laws (virtual slave labor in some cases) and ridiculously low wages through off-shoring and outsourcing…In other words, for all the right reasons.

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