State salary numbers don’t tell full story

Our data dive provides some context

To read the headlines in the two Boston papers last week would lead one to think that government salaries are spiraling out of control: “More than 1,000 state employees get pay hiked over $100,000,” blared the Herald. The Globe fronted with the raw number: “Nearly 9,000 state workers earned at least $100,000.” The Herald went on to report that the increase in six-figure salaries represented a “whopping” 15 percent hike over the previous year.

But looking at the entire state payroll — which you can, by downloading the full dataset — tells a less alarming story. Here are two other ways to report the same data:

  • This year’s new six-figure earners represent 1.03 percent of the 106,000 or so state employees listed in the database.
  • The percentage of state employees making $100,000 or more increased from 7.3 percent to 8.3 percent (see the bar chart).

In fact, the increase in six-figure earners year over year appears to be very close to what one would expect, given current salary distributions. The employees that would be most expected to join the $100,000 club are those making very nearly $100,000 in the previous year. Absent a pay freeze, one would expect normal cost of living, promotions, and other increases to move some number of people over any invisible line, no matter where on the scale it is drawn. So, if there were about 1,100 people making just under $100,000 last year, we would expect the number making more than $100,000 this year to increase by about the same number.

Looking at this year’s figure, it appears that this is indeed the case. Of the 106,000 state employees in the database, 1,125 made between $97,000 and $100,000 in 2013. We can reasonably assume that this is very similar to the number from 2012, meaning that an increase of 1,100 employees now making over $100,000 is about what should be expected. Using the data, we can also estimate that about the same number of employees will join the $100,000 club next year as well.

Now, one could perhaps argue that overall salary levels for Massachusetts state employees are too high, if a comparison to other states led to that conclusion (neither we nor either of the papers attempted such a comparison). One could also argue that overall dollars spent on state payroll should not increase year over year. But since nobody seems to be arguing for a pay freeze, the mere fact of an increase in six-figure earners actually tells us very little about whether the state payroll is appropriate or out of scale.

Meet the Author

Steve Koczela

President, MassINC Polling Group

About Steve Koczela

Steve Koczela is the President of The MassINC Polling Group, where he has grown the organization from its infancy to a nationally known and respected polling provider. During the 2014 election cycle, MPG conducted election polling for WBUR, the continuation of a three-year partnership. Koczela again led the endeavor, producing polls which came within one point of the margin in both the Massachusetts gubernatorial and U.S. Senate Elections. He was also lead writer for Poll Vault, WBUR’s political reporting section during the 2014 Election Cycle.

He has led survey research programs for the U.S. Department of State in Iraq, in key states for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and has conducted surveys and polls on behalf of many private corporations. Koczela brings a deep understanding of the foundations of public opinion and a wide ranging methodological expertise. He earned U.S. Department of State recognition for his leading edge work on sample evaluation in post conflict areas using geospatial systems.

Koczela is frequent guest on WBUR as well as many other news and talk programs in Massachusetts and elsewhere. His polling analysis is often cited in local, state, and national media outlets. He currently serves as President of the New England Chapter of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (NEAAPOR). Koczela holds a Master’s degree in Marketing Research from the University of Wisconsin and is a veteran of the war in Iraq.

About Steve Koczela

Steve Koczela is the President of The MassINC Polling Group, where he has grown the organization from its infancy to a nationally known and respected polling provider. During the 2014 election cycle, MPG conducted election polling for WBUR, the continuation of a three-year partnership. Koczela again led the endeavor, producing polls which came within one point of the margin in both the Massachusetts gubernatorial and U.S. Senate Elections. He was also lead writer for Poll Vault, WBUR’s political reporting section during the 2014 Election Cycle.

He has led survey research programs for the U.S. Department of State in Iraq, in key states for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and has conducted surveys and polls on behalf of many private corporations. Koczela brings a deep understanding of the foundations of public opinion and a wide ranging methodological expertise. He earned U.S. Department of State recognition for his leading edge work on sample evaluation in post conflict areas using geospatial systems.

Koczela is frequent guest on WBUR as well as many other news and talk programs in Massachusetts and elsewhere. His polling analysis is often cited in local, state, and national media outlets. He currently serves as President of the New England Chapter of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (NEAAPOR). Koczela holds a Master’s degree in Marketing Research from the University of Wisconsin and is a veteran of the war in Iraq.

Meet the Author

Rich Parr

Research Director, The MassINC Polling Group

About Rich Parr

Richard Parr is Research Director with The MassINC Polling Group. Rich contributes a deep familiarity with Massachusetts policies, politics and media, as well as a background in public policy and media.

Since joining MPG in 2013, Rich has taken primary responsibility for data processing and contributes to survey and sample design. He uses his background in policy and media to craft and edit analysis memos and reports attuned to the political context and salient issues. Rich oversaw data visualization and mapping for WBUR’s Poll Vault during the 2014 election cycle, and co-authored and edited several piece for the site.

Prior to joining MPG, Rich was Policy Director at A Better City, a nonprofit representing Boston-area businesses and institutions on transportation, land development and the environment. In that role Rich became a recognized expert on transportation finance and helped organize a statewide coalition which succeeded in elevating transportation to a top legislative priority. He launched and edited ABC’s blog and oversaw its social media presence. Rich continues to work on transportation projects in his spare time and for MassINC, MPG’s parent think-tank. He is a member of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s Legislative Committee and the Boston Bikes Advisory Group, for which MPG has conducted pro-bono analysis.

Before joining ABC, Rich produced web content for the award-winning PBS documentary series FRONTLINE. He has also worked in new media for political campaigns and in media operations for the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Rich holds a Bachelor’s degree in Literature from Harvard College.

About Rich Parr

Richard Parr is Research Director with The MassINC Polling Group. Rich contributes a deep familiarity with Massachusetts policies, politics and media, as well as a background in public policy and media.

Since joining MPG in 2013, Rich has taken primary responsibility for data processing and contributes to survey and sample design. He uses his background in policy and media to craft and edit analysis memos and reports attuned to the political context and salient issues. Rich oversaw data visualization and mapping for WBUR’s Poll Vault during the 2014 election cycle, and co-authored and edited several piece for the site.

Prior to joining MPG, Rich was Policy Director at A Better City, a nonprofit representing Boston-area businesses and institutions on transportation, land development and the environment. In that role Rich became a recognized expert on transportation finance and helped organize a statewide coalition which succeeded in elevating transportation to a top legislative priority. He launched and edited ABC’s blog and oversaw its social media presence. Rich continues to work on transportation projects in his spare time and for MassINC, MPG’s parent think-tank. He is a member of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s Legislative Committee and the Boston Bikes Advisory Group, for which MPG has conducted pro-bono analysis.

Before joining ABC, Rich produced web content for the award-winning PBS documentary series FRONTLINE. He has also worked in new media for political campaigns and in media operations for the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Rich holds a Bachelor’s degree in Literature from Harvard College.

The lesson here is that context is important when looking at figures such as these. Here’s hoping next year’s crop of stories about the state payroll keep that in mind.

Steve Koczela is the president and Rich Parr is the research director of the MassINC Polling Group.