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Patricia Cohen and Robert Gebeloff, The New York Times:

The anxiety and seething anger that followed the disappearance of middle-income jobs in factory towns has helped reshape the American political map and topple longstanding policies on tariffs and immigration.

But globalization and automation aren’t the only forces responsible for the loss of those reliable paychecks. So is the steady erosion of the public sector.

For generations of Americans, working for a state or local government — as a teacher, firefighter, bus driver or nurse — provided a comfortable nook in the middle class. No less than automobile assembly lines and steel plants, the public sector ensured that even workers without a college education could afford a home, a minivan, movie nights and a family vacation.

“I was surprised to realize along the way I was no longer middle class,” said Teresa Moore, who has spent 30 years investigating complaints of abused or neglected children, veterans and seniors in Oklahoma.

She raised two daughters in Alex, a rural dot southwest of the capital, on her salary. But when she applied for a mortgage nine years ago, the loan officer casually described her as “low income.”

The private sector has been more welcoming. During 97 consecutive months of job growth, it created 18.6 million positions, a 17 percent increase.

But that impressive streak comes with an asterisk. Many of the jobs created – most in service industries – lack stability and security. They pay little more than the minimum wage and lack predictable hours, insurance, sick days or parental leave.

The result is that the foundation of the middle class continues to be gnawed away even as help-wanted ads multiply.

“It’s a tough time to be working in government,” said Neil Reichenberg, executive director of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources. Once there were several attractions to public employment in addition to the mission of making a difference in your community, he added, but incentives like good health insurance and retirement benefits have disappeared. “There’s been a lot of cutbacks that have made government a less competitive employer,” he said.

Government hiring failed to bounce back after the recession in both Republican- and Democratic-led states, and states continued to shed workers through 2013. The recovery’s slow pace held down revenues at the same time as baby boomers began retiring and generous pension and benefit commitments made in fatter years came due.

“They couldn’t pay their obligations,” said Edwin Benton, a political scientist at the University of South Florida and the managing editor of an academic journal, State and Local Government Review. “The epidemic has grown to almost every city and state.”

“We’re in uncharted waters,” he added.

Paul Ciano

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