Volcker Alliance Spotlight: The Government Shutdown Examined by Paul C. Light

Friday, February 1, 2019

The 35-day government shutdown that concluded this January is the longest in our nation’s history. The fallout was widespread. The approximate 800,000 federal employees who were dismissed without pay weren’t the only workers suffering financially as a result of the shutdown. Paul C. Light, Volcker Alliance non-resident senior fellow and NYU Wagner professor, estimates over 5.3 million contract and grant workers – about 4.1 million contract workers and 1.2 million grant workers – were also affected. These contract and grant workers may not receive back pay.

"We've got a very large federal workforce with a majority of employees who are not on Uncle Sam's direct payroll," Mr. Light told NPR. "They will not get paid for this unpaid vacation, and I'm not sure how they'll recover.”

New Book Released on the Government Workforce

Paul C. Light has conducted extensive research on the nation’s government, with a focus on the size and composition of the government workforce. His latest book, The Government-Industrial Complex: The True Size of the Federal Government, 1984-2018, supported by the Volcker Alliance, delivers a new analysis and estimates the current size of the government-industrial complex since 1984. He observes that the American government has greatly increased the use of contract and grant employees, while the actual number of federal employees has remained steady.

Mr. Light questions how these changes have affected performance and influence within government. He asks whether the nation has the right people to fulfill the government’s duty to serve the public good.

The book researches the demographic, bureaucratic, and political factors that have caused changes in the government workforce. Mr. Light traces the influence of presidencies, war, and economic crisis on the government-industrial complex. His book also evaluates the Trump administration’s actions to deconstruct and reduce the size of government. Mr. Light also studied the changing workforce in his paper with the Volcker Alliance, “The True Size of Government.”

Other Implications of the Government Shutdown

The broader ramifications of government shutdown threaten the nation’s health, security, economy, and education. Mr. Light was recently featured in The Washington Post’s article about the sharp reduction of food inspections by the FDA, making Americans less safe.

The nation’s safety and security were also in jeopardy. Mr. Light spoke to NYU News about the shutdown’s impact. He explains that the shutdown inflicts short- and long-term effects on performance in every department and agency within the government. Mr. Light, who has also studied major government breakdowns such as 9/11 and the Gulf oil spill, believes “the shutdown could trigger a similar inventory of failures in coming months or years.”

The shutdown compromised Americans’ already low faith in government, and it has also dissuaded young talent from entering the federal workforce. Mr. Light explains that the impact is not over despite the end of the shutdown. “We’ll need significant repairs.”

Paul C. Light's Issue Papers with the Volcker Alliance

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