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The House of Representatives passed a 2.6 percent pay raise for all civilian federal employees in response to a government shutdown that left hundreds of thousands of federal workers either furloughed or working without pay.
Some Republican lawmakers decried the move. U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., sent out a tweet saying, "Where I come from you don’t get a pay raise just for showing up to work."
"Today Dem leaders pushed a $5B pay raise for federal workers who are paid well above the HOUSEHOLD income in southern Missouri. Retweet if you think that money would be better spent to #SecureOurBorder."
On Feb. 1, Smith repeated the claim in his Weekly Capitol Report.
The raise in question matches an increase in pay for military personnel that was passed in 2019. If passed by the Senate, the bill would undo a pay freeze instituted by President Donald Trump on Dec. 28.
We decided to take a closer look to see if federal workers really do make that much more than southern Missourians and if so, why.
Smith’s claim focuses on two different metrics — the income of an individual federal civilian employee and the income of households in southern Missouri. This distinction is important, because household income can include the wages and salaries of multiple people.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis supports Smith’s claim that individual federal employees bring in more pay than southern Missouri households.
The mean household income in Missouri is $70,144, a figure already lower than the mean income of a federal civilian worker, which is $90,811.
When asked for data supporting the claim, Smith’s communications director Joey Brown pointed to census data compiled by congressional district. To determine the average household income in "southern" Missouri, we looked at the two congressional districts that cover the state’s southernmost counties — districts 7 and 8.
Smith’s district, Congressional District 8, encompasses the southeast corner of the state, stretching from Ozark County to Jefferson County and extending into the Bootheel region. There, the mean household income is $54,393.
In neighboring Congressional District 7, which covers the southwest corner of the state, the mean household income is $62,145.
There are many explanations for why federal employees are paid more than the average southern Missourian household. Experts told us that any comparison should also take into account education, training, skills and experience that increase worker productivity and typically result in higher incomes.
The federal government’s 2.2 million civilian workers tend to be "older, more educated and more concentrated in professional occupations than private-sector workers," according to the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress.
About 51 percent of federal workers have attained at least a bachelor’s degree. In Smith’s district, about 16 percent of constituents 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Office of Personnel Management.
A report by the Congressional Budget Office that accounted for these differences found that there is a disparity between how federal and private workers are paid.
But this disparity depends on levels of education.
"There’s very little question that the top people in government are being paid quite a bit less usually than the top people with those kinds of skills in the private sector," said University of Missouri economics professor Peter Mueser.
Federal workers with a professional or doctorate degree earned roughly 24 percent less than their privately-employed counterparts.
But federal workers with no more than a high school education earned 34 percent more than similar workers employed outside the federal government. Federal employees whose highest level of education was a bachelor’s degree earned 5 percent more.
Another factor worth considering is benefits, said Iowa State University economics professor John Winters by email.
In addition to salaries and wages, workers are compensated with benefits such as health insurance, retirement plans and job security. However, benefits are more difficult to quantify, because they are in part based on future predictions and less-detailed data is available on benefits than wages.
The CBO study found that for federal employees whose highest level of education was a bachelor’s degree, benefits were 52 percent higher. Average benefits were 93 percent higher for federal employees with no more than a high school education.
For employees with a doctorate or professional degree, average benefits were "about the same in the two sectors."
The bare bones of Smith’s claim hold up to scrutiny. Federal workers do take home more in income than the average household in southern Missouri.
But Smith’s statement doesn’t take into account differences between southern Missourians and the average federal employee that help explain income disparity, such as education.
We rate this statement Mostly True.
Rep. Jason Smith tweet, Jan. 30, 2019
Rep. Jason Smith’s Weekly Capitol Report, Feb. 1 2019
Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Income and Product Accounts, accessed on Feb. 3, 2019
Office of Personnel Management, Employment - June 2018, accessed on Feb. 10, 2019
Congressional Research Service, "Comparing compensation for federal and private-sector workers: An overview," July 30, 2012
Congressional Budget Office, Comparing the Compensation of Federal and Private-Sector Employees, 2011 to 2015, April 2017
U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, accessed on Feb. 10, 2019
U.S. Census Bureau, 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, accessed on Feb. 10, 2019
Interview with Peter Mueser, University of Missouri economics professor, Feb. 6, 2019
Email exchange with John Winters, Iowa State University economics professor, Feb. 8, 2019
Email exchange with Joey Brown, communications director for Rep. Jason Smith, Feb. 1, 2019
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