Government Employees Should Be Stipend-Receiving Civic Servants

mrpresidentI’ve been impressed by a number of initial moves by Obama as he’s assumed the presidency. One of them was a pay freeze. There’s a nice video where he addresses that and a few other executive orders, but I was able to pull this quote from the memorandum on

Many have accepted the call to serve in Government and to assist me in restoring a sound economy and in improving the lives of average Americans. In this challenging economic period, it is only appropriate that senior officials on the White House staff forgo pay increases until further notice.

Accordingly, as a signal of our shared commitment to restoring the country’s economic vitality and because of the serious economic conditions we are facing, I intend to freeze the salaries of senior members of the White House staff, to the extent permitted by law. I direct you to report back to me within 30 days with recommendations for actions to implement this freeze.

The memorandum was directed to the Assistant to the President, but since it was out there on the interwebs and he does ask for a “report back” with recommendations, I figure it’s my duty to give him a response as well.

In 2003-2004, right after I was married, my wife and I went to serve for one year with AmeriCorps in Atlanta Georgia. AmeriCorps is our government funded Civic Service program encouraging volunteer civic service (like the PeaceCorps). It’s a one year program where you serve full-time, usually with a government program (school, park district, etc) or a non-profit (for me, Hands On Atlanta). For your commitment you receive a living stipend, which is enough to provide you with adequate housing and transportation cost in your area, you receive an education reward of about $4500, and you are eligible for food stamps. Most volunteers are overworked and clearly underpaid (figure probably less then minimum wage). It’s a commitment and sacrifice to choose to participate in this program (but, don’t ask me, ask Dr. Jackson, whom I worked with, a phd educated woman with a daughter and grand daughter still under her roof).

I give you that background as my research for what I think a ‘freeze’ should look like for the White House and the rest of your government leaders. I don’t mean this as a criticism of their work, rather, I believe if politicians are going to true servants of the people, then we need to take away some of the other incentives (namely: money).  So, here’s my brief letter to Obama.

Mr. President,

I believe, effective immediately, all members of government should cease to receive salaries and instead receive living stipends based on federally recognized ‘living-wage’ standards for the area in which they serve (i.e. Washington D.C. or Minneapolis, MN). This stipend can take into account family size and other household incomes, but should remain reasonably based on data. The stipend need not account for food costs, as explained in the following paragraph.

All members of government, will be eligible and enrolled in the EBT-Foodstamps program in their state. Again, this would account for family size, but should follow the same paramaters as all other citizens of their state. For example, regardless of the government employees income, if the combined household income is greater then the qualifying rate, they need not be eligible since according to state standards they can afford to cover their food cost out of their own pocket.

Finally, similar to incentives in AmeriCorps and Teach For America, I think government members should receive some sort of education incentive. Since many in our upper levels of government have already pursued and exhausted their education advancement, they should have the option to use their education incentive for their children. This would help balance out some of the sacrifice of the living stipend rather than a salary.

Pay freezes on already overblown salaries is a small step to walking in step with the American people. If this administration is truly committed to “the call to serve” then I think this pay change would be a true step toward civic servitude.


Ariah Fine

Active Citizen

8 thoughts on “Government Employees Should Be Stipend-Receiving Civic Servants”

  1. Decent point. You'd think a system like this would make corruption easier to spot. Our politicians are already somewhat in the lime light and with all the new transparency efforts (and websites), I think you could spot someone spending extra cash pretty easily. Who knows.

    Obviously this was more a random brainstorm, don't really expect Obama to read it and implement it. But, I still hold it has some good ideas and could impact the way we see politics and politicians.

    Who knows.

  2. I think that this would be really bad public policy. While most people who enter into government understand that they will be making less than they could in the private world, you still want to be able to pay people competitively enough to attract top talent.

    Freezing wages is a publicity stunt more than anything else, and it puts at risk Obama's ability to entice the brightest and most talented people to leave the private world and come into his administration.

  3. Quite thought-provoking, Ariah. Some of the thinking on anti-corruption efforts in developing countries is moving in the opposite direction on public sector salaries–the hypothesis is that paying government employees more will reduce the (perceived or real) need to extract wealth by illegal and opaque means in order to survive. If your living stipend policy was implemented in the U.S., I wonder if we would see an increase in so-called public servants who seek to earn money by abusing power.

  4. Well… FWIW, there is a difference between politicians and bureaucrats. But even still, I am not completely sure that having career politicians is a bad thing. I would also argue that on the politician side, if you pay them so little, you have an even greater threat of illegal payments and the like.

    I guess I just don't see the difference between career bureaucrat or career teacher. Both are important necessary, and both should be paid well in order to attract top talent.

  5. great thoughts here Ariah, I believe realistic wise it would more then likely be that we end up with something more in the middle of what you propose and what is….should some serious change come

  6. "One a side note, I'm curious what the salary scale is for the US military."

    When compared to civilian government employees they are an absolute joke. I was making somewhere around $1200 a month, but that was including jump pay, hazard pay, and other additional appropriations based on me having a combat line job. Most don't even make that. I'm not sure how much it has changed since I was in, but I can't imagine it is even close to the level of a public teacher.

  7. I understand your concern about attracting top talent and paying competitively, I feel the same way about pay increases for teachers in the public school system.
    However, one of the flipsides is that we've created career politicians. Being a politician is something you can do as a lifetime career, it pays well, and it brings a lot of power. I think some of the negatives of that outweigh the good of competitive wages.

    One a side note, I'm curious what the salary scale is for the US military.

  8. I'm torn on the military. I lean toward the idea of it being a civic service position like serving in government, or the AmeriCorps programs, etc. I really don't like the education incentives tied to military service. Working with low income youth in Nashville, far too many of them saw the military as the only feasible way for them to be able to afford college.
    If we are to truly have a volunteer military, then it should be that, without the need for millions on advertising, education incentives and the rest. Or if there are education incentives they should be equal to the ones available for the same amount of time serving in the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps.
    But all that is more my thinking for those doing 4 year stint types of things.
    For career military personnel I can see the logic in having competitive wages. I've always thought people do quite well financial making a career of military service. Guess I need to check my facts.

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