Students at William Hackett Middle School in Albany pass through metal detectors.
Students at William Hackett Middle School in Albany pass through metal detectors. Mike Groll/AP

Many large urban areas in the U.S. now have more “guard labor” than teachers.

The February 14 massacre in Parkland, Florida, was the deadliest high-school shooting in U.S. history. In response, the Florida legislature passed a law that raised the minimum age to purchase a firearm; imposed a three-day waiting period; banned bump stocks; and, controversially, enabled school districts to deputize teachers to carry weapons on campus. This “school marshal” program provides $67 million for voluntary gun training and certification, and could result in as many as 37,000 armed staff across the state (including coaches and counselors, but not full-time classroom teachers).

The legislature, however, rejected a ban on firearms like the one used in the shooting. Instead of such significant gun-control measures, Florida took one step further in the expansion of America’s already outsized security-industrial complex.

In a 2014 New York Times op-ed, economists Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev documented the startling rise of “guard labor“ in America. According to their broad definition, the United States employs more guard labor—including private security guards, police officers, prison and court officials, members of the armed forces and civilian employees of the military, and weapons producers—than teachers. They noted that the U.S. is unique in its massive guard-labor numbers, with a proportion of guard labor four times as high as in Sweden, twice as high as in Germany, and considerably higher than in the United Kingdom or Italy. (Building on their work in a follow-up piece for City Observatory, Joe Cortright mapped guard labor across U.S. metropolitan areas.)

In a stunning turnaround, today it is school employees—the very people to whom we entrust our children—who are being enlisted as guard labor.

With help from the economic data firm Emsi, I set out to map the rise of guard labor and the connection between security guards and teachers across America’s metro areas. Emsi provided the base data on guard labor and teachers for the decade spanning 2007 to 2017. Our definition of guard labor is narrower than that of Bowles and Jayadev, limited to what they call “protective guard labor”—that is, police officers and detectives, prison guards, private security guards, transportation security screeners, and other protective service workers. Our definition of teachers includes pre-school, elementary, middle-school, and high-school teachers, as well as special-education teachers.

For each metro, we looked at the change in guard labor over time, the number of guards per 10,000 people, the location quotient for guard labor, and—most importantly for our purposes—the ratio of guards to teachers. These statistics speak volumes about America’s priorities, and provide yet another example of how we frequently choose to increase security rather than address the root causes of crime and violence.

In 2017, across the nation as a whole, there were 2.9 million guards and 3.6 million teachers—a guard-to-teacher ratio of 0.80. Over the decade 2007 to 2017, however, the U.S. added more than twice as many guards as teachers. During this time period, the number of guards grew by 5 percent, compared to just 2 percent for teachers, and private security guards alone increased by a whopping 11 percent.

Guard labor is concentrated in the country’s large metros (of more than 1 million people), which are home to more than 60 percent of the nationwide cohort. These 53 large metros have also seen a much faster rise in guard labor over the past decade, an increase of 7.6 percent between 2007 and 2017, compared to 2.8 percent for small and medium-sized metros. Large metros have an average of 95.2 guards per 10,000 people, compared to 76.8 for small and medium-sized metros. The guard-to-teacher ratio is also higher in large metros (0.88 versus 0.71).

Let’s start by looking at the large metros where guard labor has grown the most over the past decade. Overall, a third of large metros and a quarter of all metros have seen double-digit percent increases in guard-labor population between 2007 and 2017. Only five large metros have seen net decreases. Guard labor has grown by 25 percent in Orlando and Charlotte, and by more than 14 percent in all the metros in this top 10 (see chart below). In addition, there are roughly 19 small and medium-sized metros where guard labor has grown by 25 to 50 percent.

Large metro Percent change in guard labor 2007-2017
Orlando 26.4%
Riverside-San Bernardino, CA 25.8%
Charlotte 24.1%
San Antonio 19.9%
Houston 19.4%
Dallas 19.0%
New Orleans 18.3%
Grand Rapids, MI 17.7%
Salt Lake City 17.0%
Jacksonville, FL 14.3%

Next, we look at places with the most guards per 10,000 residents. Baltimore tops the list, followed by Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., and New York. The Miami metro, where the Parkland shooting took place, is eighth. Almost a fifth of small and medium-sized metros have more than 100 guards per 10,000 people.

Large metro Guard labor per 10,000 residents
Baltimore 140.23
Las Vegas 131.62
Washington, D.C. 130.33
New York 127.59
Memphis 124.78
New Orleans 123.05
Richmond, VA 120.45
Miami 116.10
Buffalo, NY 116.08
Tucson 102.67

Now, we look at the location quotients, or LQs, for guard labor. LQs are a way of comparing a metro’s share of something—an industry or occupation, for example—to the national average. An LQ of 1 means a metro is equal to the national average; an LQ of 2 means its level is double the national average. Las Vegas tops the list of large metros, followed by Miami, Baltimore, and New York. In addition, there are two small and medium-sized metros—The Villages, Florida, and Pine Bluff, Arizona—with LQs of 3 or higher, and another 25 with LQs above 1.5.

Large metro Location quotient
Las Vegas 1.54
Miami 1.45
Baltimore 1.44
New York 1.43
New Orleans 1.43
Memphis 1.37
Washington, D.C. 1.29
Buffalo, NY 1.23
Richmond, VA 1.22

Last, we look at the ratio of guards to teachers. Again, Las Vegas tops the list, followed by Miami, and then Tucson, Phoenix, and Baltimore. More than a quarter of large metros and a fifth of small and medium-sized metros have guard-to-teacher ratios of one or higher.

Large metro Ratio of guards to teachers
Las Vegas 1.79
Miami 1.39
Tucson 1.31
Phoenix 1.23
Baltimore 1.19
Sacramento, CA 1.14
Richmond, VA 1.11
Washington, D.C. 1.10
New Orleans 1.08
Memphis 1.06

America as a whole has nearly as many guards as teachers, and, in many places, guards already outnumber teachers. Even with its huge number of guards, America has by far the most gun deaths in the developed world.  

It’s patently obvious that America’s solution of adding more and more guards does not address the root of the violence epidemic. The money we waste on guards—or training school staff to be guards—could be much better spent improving our schools, developing our young people, and enacting and enforcing laws that are proven to prevent violence in the first place.

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