15 Government-Heavy (and Recession-Resistant) Cities

In some areas of the country, government jobs are keeping employment up.


It's been said that if there's one type of job that's recessionproof, it's a government job. After all, spending by federal and state governments tends to go up in recessions, and that's been especially true with President Obama's stimulus response. But it's not exactly true that government jobs are recessionproof. Government employment growth has slowed to a trickle: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, government employment has added an average of about 5,000 workers a month over the past year. In June, the government sector actually lost 52,000 jobs.

[Slide Show: 15 Government Heavy and Recession Resistant Cities.]

But if government jobs aren't exactly recessionproof, they're certainly recession-resistant—especially if you compare the government sector to other sectors of the economy. Those other industries are losing massive numbers of jobs (total nonfarm employment has fallen an average of 448,000 workers a month since June of 2008) The only industry that's lost fewer jobs than government is one that's heavily reliant on government: education and health services, which has added 35,230 over the same period.

Cities that have lots of government workers have proven recession-resistant. A June report from the Brookings Institution examined how the country's metropolitan areas fared during the first three months of the year. Metro areas where government is one of the main employers shed fewer jobs than other metro areas. Average employment in these government-heavy areas has fallen only by 1.3 percent between the fourth quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2009, compared with 4 percent losses for metro areas where the major industries are arts and entertainment or agriculture. Only metro areas where mining is a dominant industry have lost fewer jobs (1 percent decrease).

But if you don't work for the government yourself, does any of this matter? Yes, because healthy employment in your city benefits you in other ways, even if you don't work in one of the healthy industries. "The jobs themselves spill over to the rest of the economy," says Alan Berube, senior fellow at Brookings and one of the authors of the report. The still-employed government workers have more money to spend on restaurants, retail, and other parts of the local economy. There are other industries that thrive on money from the government. And more government activity means more money for the nonprofit, health, and education sectors. "These are the sectors least damaged by the recession," says Joel Kotkin, an urban scholar at Chapman University.

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As a result, not all of the cities with a large public-sector presence are state capitals, as one might assume. For example, in California, "the research institutions and the educational institutions are in San Francisco, not in Sacramento," says Kotkin. Additionally, employment in state and local governments is no sure thing as cash-strapped states cut budgets. The cities that stand out in terms of the number of government jobs tend to be heavy not in state government jobs but in more stable jobs like those at state universities. Berube calls state universities "another industry that has not shed jobs as a result of the recession."

Not everyone thinks the healthiness of government jobs is good news. If government is providing more opportunities, there is a concern of a "brain drain" of the best and brightest from the private sector into the public sector. Such a shift could be problematic because the private sector tends to create more jobs and wealth than the public sector overall. "There's an enormous danger in the diversion of creative power into government instead of elsewhere in the world," says Kotkin.

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But even if it's not the best trend for the country's overall economic future, the hardiness of government employment means that cities with a large number of public-sector jobs will have the advantage of greater stability than other cities. U.S. News used data culled from Bureau of Labor Statistics and housing data on the number of government employees as well as estimated data on city populations to find the cities with the highest per-capita number of government employees. Here are the top 15 of those cities (which have a population of 100,000 or greater).