How many people in Howard County work for the government?

4 minute read

There’s this meme going around that Howard County Republicans fared badly because Howard County has so many government workers, and they all vote for Democrats because they have an interest in growing the size of government. For example, from an Columbia Flier story quoting Joan Becker of the Howard County Republican Party:

The Republican message of smaller government didn’t play well in Maryland, the home of hundreds of government agencies and contractors, Becker said. You can’t run on a campaign of less government when 30 percent of the people work for the government, she said.

More recently in response to a HoCo Rising post commenter Glewis upped the ante, claiming that

50 percent (or more) of Howard County works for the government. The same is true in Montgomery and Prince Georges. Government workers always vote Democratic.

Fifty per cent of Howard County sounds like a lot of people, even leaving out kids and the retired. So I couldn’t help wondering whether there were any authoritative sources of data on how many people in Howard County (or other Maryland counties) are government workers, whether at the Federal, state, and local level.

As it turns out, the American Community Survey data from the Bureau of the Census contains annual estimates of the size of the civilian work force in each U.S. county, along with whether they work for private industry or various branches of government. The following table (based on the 2009 ACS data) gives the percentage of the work force employed by local, state, or Federal governments in each of various Maryland counties, along with two counties in Virginia for comparison.

County Civilians employed Government workers % Government workers
[Prince Georges]( 434,699 128,873 29.6%
[Anne Arundel]( 260,830 61,773 23.7%
[Harford]( 126,581 27,669 21.9%
[Fairfax]( 556,080 121,178 21.8%
[Montgomery]( 514,836 107,274 20.8%
[Howard]( 151,184 31,393 20.8%
[Loudoun]( 161,066 24,213 15.0%

Note that these figures do not include people who work for government contractors, so the number of people whose livelihoods are directly dependent on government spending is significantly higher than the percentages above might indicate. I can easily believe, for example, that 30% of Howard County workers work for the government or for government contractors; it might even be 40 or 50% if we assume that government contractors outnumber government employees (which is somewhat plausible).

However, does this factor in and of itself explain the relative lack of success of Howard County Republicans in electing county executive and county council candidates and in getting out the vote for Robert Ehrlich? Note from the above table that both Anne Arundel and Harford County have higher percentages of government workers than Howard. Yet both Anne Arundel and Harford just (re)elected Republican county executives (John Leopold and David Craig respectively). Harford County in particular tilts so far Republican that Ehrlich got over 64% of the vote to less than 33% for O’Malley (as noted recently by HoCo Rising), and Democrats couldn’t even find candidates to run against David Craig or to make up full slates for the county council and local state legislative districts.

Note also that Fairfax County in Virginia has a higher percentage of government workers than either Howard County or Montgomery County, but from what I can tell Fairfax County Republicans are doing reasonably well considering. For example, there are three Republicans on the ten-person Fairfax Board of Supervisors, almost a third of the total. Compare the one Republican out of five county council members in Howard, or no Republicans (that’s right, zero) on the Montgomery County Council.

Even without the benefit of the above statistics HoCo Rising felt justified in dismissing local Republican complaints about the voting patterns of government workers:

[The] funny thing is that Maryland didn't just move in next to DC. Our state has always had federal workers, Howard County has always had federal workers, and Virginia, which has its own significant Federal Worker population, votes more conservative than Maryland. If Republicans want to throw in the hat because of the feds, so be it. But I think this is a lame excuse for failure.

As it happens I think HCR was being just a tad harsh. I think there are in fact structural reasons why Republicans have problems in Howard County as opposed to Harford County and in Maryland as opposed to Virginia, probably due to the way voters sort themselves in choosing their preferred places to live. But I do agree that this idea that government workers in Howard County automatically vote Democratic in order to build socialism in one county is a crock, and the sooner we bury it the better, But I do agree that this idea that Republican woes are due primarily to our having more government workers is a crock, and the sooner we bury it the better.

UPDATE: I changed the last sentence to better reflect the conclusion I came to based on the evidence. (I think the original sentence is true too, but that’s just my opinion.)