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The impact of public employment on health

Wei Zhang, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The conversion of publicly owned industries and services into privately owned assets has been one of the most radical and controversial global economic trends of the past three decades. The major underlying rationale for this conversion is that public ownership is inherently economically inefficient. This point of view not only ignores the substantive evidence that disapproves this claim, but it also fails to recognize the merits of public ownership in promoting social welfare and health. Public ownership—in the form of public employment—does the latter in two ways: first, by providing employees with better and more equal benefits and working conditions than does the private sector, and second, by ensuring the smooth delivery of affordable quality social services to the public at large. This study quantitatively evaluates the impact of public employment on health at both the national and the individual level. At the national level, a cross-country sample from the 1980s shows that an increase of public sector employment was associated with a statistically and economically significant increase in life expectancy—a major indicator of population health. The association was even more prominent for middle- and low-income countries and for women. At the individual level, using logistic regression on data from a 2006 Chinese household survey, this study finds that public sector employees were statistically more likely to report good or excellent health than private sector employees. Analysis of the data reveals that much of this health premium is attributable to the fact that the public sector provides more permanent jobs than the private sector. Further, the private sector appears to have steep social class-health gradients, while such health inequality is moderate or even absent within the public sector. As a complement to the quantitative findings, this study also conducts a qualitative survey of China’s institutional and social context. It helps to further explain why the public sector in China remains a better employer after the collapse of the “iron rice bowl” system. Several policy implications emerge from this study. First, public sector employment deserves serious consideration as an instrument to promote health and health equality. Second, job security is essential for health; proposals for a more flexible and less regulated labor market are neither theoretically nor empirically justified. And last but not least, if the public sector continues its recent practice of implementing neoliberal policies, such as privatization and deregulation, its health premium over the private sector may go away.

Subject Area

Economics|Economics|Public health|Public policy

Recommended Citation

Zhang, Wei, "The impact of public employment on health" (2010). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3427579.