As I've emphasized many times in the past, austerity at the state and local level forced by balanced budget requirements, falling tax revenues, and increasing demand for public services due to the recession had a large, negative effect on the economy. The failure of the federal government to backfill state and local budgets and stop this from happening was a big policy mistake:
Three years into recovery, just how much has state and local austerity hurt job growth?, by Josh Bivens and Heidi Shierholz: ...the public sector has seen massive job loss in the current recovery—largely due to budget cuts at the state and local level — which represents a serious drag that was not weighing on earlier recoveries. ...
How many more jobs would we have if the public sector hadn’t been shedding jobs for the last three years? The simplest answer is that the public sector has shed 627,000 jobs since June 2009. However, this raw job-loss figure understates the drag of public-sector employment relative to how the economy functions normally.
Over this same period the overall population grew by 6.9 million. In June 2009 there were 7.3 public-sector workers for every 100 people in the US; to keep that ratio constant given population growth, the public sector should have added roughly 505,000 jobs in the last three years. This means that, relative to a much more economically relevant trend, the public sector is now down more than 1.1 million jobs. And even against this more-realistic trend, these public-sector losses are dominated by austerity at the state and local level, with federal employment contributing only around 6% of this entire gap.
It should be noted that this counter-factual of 1.1 million additional public sector jobs is a perfectly reasonable benchmark. Before the Great Recession, the number of public-sector workers per 100 people had averaged right around 7.3 since the late 1980s. In other words, having 1.1 million more public-sector workers, which would put us back at 7.3 public-sector workers per 100 people, would simply restore our economy to a normal level of government employment. ...
However, even that 1.1 million public-sector jobs gap leaves out an important component: public-sector job cuts also cause job loss in the private sector, for a couple of reasons. First, public-sector workers need to use inputs into their work that are sourced by the private sector. Firefighters need trucks and hoses, police officers need cars and radios, and teachers need books and desks. When public-sector jobs are lost, it stands to reason that the inputs into these jobs will fall as well, and indeed research shows that for every public-sector job lost, roughly 0.43 supplier jobs are lost.
Second, the economic “multiplier” of state and local spending (not including transfer payments) is large – around 1.24. This means that for every dollar cut in salary and supplies of public-sector workers, another $0.24 is lost in purchasing power throughout the rest of the economy. Teachers and firefighters stop going to restaurants and buying cars if they’re laid off, which reduces demand for waitstaff and autoworkers and so on. Add these two influences together (supplier jobs and jobs supported by this multiplier impact) and roughly 0.67 private sector jobs are lost for every public sector job cut. This means that the public sector being down 1.1 million jobs has likely cost the private sector 1.1 million*0.67 = 751,000 jobs.
Further, it should be noted that this 0.67 figure only accounts for private-sector job loss that is due to direct public-sector job loss. But state and local austerity has components besides cutting direct jobs; when these governments cut back, they often don’t just cut jobs, they also cut transfer payments (generally safety-net programs like Medicaid and unemployment insurance...).
A rough estimate of this additional impact of jobs lost due to cutbacks in transfer spending can be constructed using the fact that that transfer payments constitute roughly a quarter of state and local spending, and tend to have slightly higher economic “multipliers” than the direct state and local spending. If we assume that the labor intensity of jobs supported by these transfer payments are the same as that spending undertaken directly by states, this implies that the 1.1 million in state and local job losses is likely matched by 275,000 jobs lost due to reduced transfers as well. Applying a standard multiplier to this number (the 1.52 multiplier for unemployment insurance benefits, for example), yields another 412,500 jobs likely lost as states cut back on transfer payments as well as direct jobs.
This estimate of reduced transfers actually is conservative...
Putting our four components together – the jobs lost in the public sector, the jobs the public sector should have gained just to keep up with population growth, the jobs lost in the private sector due to direct public-sector job declines, and the jobs likely lost when state spending cutbacks on transfer programs were made– we find that if it weren’t for state and local austerity, the labor market would have 2.3 million more jobs today – and half of these jobs would be in the private sector.
This is more than a fifth of our 9.8 million “jobs gap”, the number of jobs needed to bring the economy back to full employment. If all of these 2.3 million jobs had been filled, it is likely that the unemployment rate would now be between 6.7% and 7.5% instead of 8.2%, and the labor force participation rate ... would be up to three-tenths of a percentage point higher than it is.
The public sector continues to shed jobs, causing job loss throughout the economy and creating an enormous drag on the recovery. To reduce these job losses and the suffering for American families they cause, Congress should provide aid to state and local governments to keep austerity in that sector from continuing to weigh down the recovery.
Here's evidence that help from the federal government mattered. If only there had been more help, the numbers above wouldn't be so large (conversely, without any help at all from the ARRA, the numbers would have been even larger):
The Role of Fiscal Stimulus in the Ongoing Recovery, by Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, Brookings: ... This conclusion comes from a pair of new academic studies on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) or the 2009 stimulus plan; both studies find robust evidence that government policy helped reduce the extent of the downturn and improve job growth. ...
The Great Recession resulted in significant increases in unemployment, but it did not impact all states equally. In fact, one contributor to the disparities appears to have been the differences in state government spending. Those states that increased per-capita expenditures the most experienced the smallest rises in unemployment rates, while those that increased expenditures the least experienced the largest rises in unemployment. Although state governments certainly played a role in shaping their economic situations, much of the increased state spending was financed by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the federal stimulus plan), which put significant amounts of money directly into depleted state coffers.
Given the serious challenge of the long-run budget outlook, it will be necessary to take difficult steps to address the imbalance between what the federal government spends and how much it raises in revenues. But it is also important to recognize that, despite the boost from the temporary stimulus, millions of Americans remain out of work and more than 40 percent of the unemployed have not worked for six months or longer. As policymakers grapple with these dual fiscal and economic challenges, it is important to recognize that they need not be at odds. The best prescription for improving the budget deficit over the next few years is to return the economy to health. To that end, it is instructive to consider the latest evidence that active budget policies enacted today can help boost employment and speed recovery
Even now, it's not too late to do more.