I’ve recently been doing some work on the budget preparation process for the FY 1964 budget. The preparation of that budget took place in the fall of 1962 through early 1963.
At the time, the American economy had recovered somewhat from the recession JFK inherited when he took office, but it was still underperforming. The government was running what was, for the time, an unusually large deficit. An even larger deficit was forecast for FY 1964.
As the Bureau of the Budget consolidated the drafts of the budget proposals from across the government, it was clear that the budget that the President would put to the Congress at the beginning of the new year would set new records. At $98.8 billion, it was the largest budget outlay in the nation’s history, topping the FY 1945 at the height of World War II spending. It came a large deficit anticipated to be about $11.9 billion, the second-largest peacetime deficit.1
Since the mid-1990s, the number of employees of the federal government has remained less than 4.5 million, a significantly lower number than for the three decades before that.JFK wanted to push through a tax cut to help spark consumer spending and thereby give the economy a jolt. But he also knew that getting Congress to agree to a tax cut wasn’t going to be easy while running large budget deficits. One measure he took to demonstrate a serious effort to rein in costs was in calling on the Executive branch to tighten its belts. On October 11, he issued a memorandum to the heads of all departments and agencies, calling on them “to achieve increases in productivity and efficiency, to use better techniques of management, and to add staff only on the basis of demonstrated need to carry out essential tasks.”2
And in December 1962 he was exploring the idea of announcing a hiring freeze on the Executive Branch. Two parts of the Executive Branch enjoyed looser restrictions. One was the Pentagon. The other was the Postal Service.
JFK’s efforts were partly successful, but only for a couple of years. By the mid-1960s, the Vietnam War and massive domestic initiatives like the War on Poverty drove federal government hiring up markedly.
But looking at the overall trends of the past half-century, somewhat surprisingly the number of federal government employees has actually gone down slightly, even as the U.S. population they serve has grown steadily.
The data below are for overall personnel on the Federal Government’s payroll. There are a lot of changes during the half-century they cover that affect productivity and government employment numbers. Jobs disappeared. The invention and deployment of computers took over typing and clerical tasks. Wars–cold, hot, and on poverty–all involved massive amounts of bureaucratic overhead. And jobs shifted, sometimes within the government and, increasingly, outsourced to private sector contractors.
You can move the cursor over the graph lines to get specific data for each year.
Total Number of Direct Employees of the Federal Government
This is another way of looking at it, with the number of military personnel stacked on top of the number of civilian personnel in the Executive branch, with the much smaller number of Judicial and Legislative Branch on top.
Executive Branch Civilian Employees
The number of civilians on the Executive Branch payroll has remained relatively constant over the past half century.
Uniformed Military Personnel
The number of uniformed military personnel has fluctuated much more dramatically and conforms pretty directly with U.S. military commitments around the world. A peak in the late-1960s was due to the escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam War, which dropped off dramatically as the engagement scaled down into the early 1970s. The end of the Cold War brought a much less dramatic but nevertheless steady decline in numbers for several years. Since then, the fluctuations have been relatively minor.
Legislative and Judicial Branch Employees
The Legislative and Judicial branches employ far fewer people than the Executive branch. In the 1960s through the 1980s, the number of employees rose sharply. Between 1962 and 1989, the number doubled from about 30,000 to about 60,000. Since 1994, the number has settled in the low- to mid-60s.
Total Federal Employees (Civilian + Military) vs Total United States Population
Total Federal Employees (Civilian + Military) as Percentage of Total United States Population
Because the total population has grown steadily since 1962 while the number of people on the Federal Government’s payroll has remained, on average, about the same, the percentage of the population employed directly by the Federal Government has steadily diminished.
Data Sources: Office of Personnel and Management Historical Federal Workforce Tables. See the source tables for detailed notes on the original data. Census data is from the U.S. Census Bureau here and here.
- “Kennedy’s $98.8 Billion Budget for Fiscal 1964 Tops Wartime Record,” Wall Street Journal, 18 January 1963. ↩
- “Memorandum on Manpower Controls and Utilization in the Executive Branch,” 11 October 1962, in Public Papers of the President: John F. Kennedy: 1962, (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963), doc. 448. ↩