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Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014

The ‘Shepherd Express’ is Introducing a New Column: You Be The Judge

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With the primary election behind us, campaigns and politicians in Wisconsin are racing toward the general election in November. So if you thought the TV and print ads are getting intense, just wait. 

When the rhetoric seems to go over the top, it can be hard to separate the fact from the fiction. So we’ve decided to roll out a new feature here at the Shepherd Express called You Be The Judge.

Each week our team of independent fact-checkers will look at a claim, put it in context, go beyond the carefully worded claim to break down the issues, present all the facts and then let you be the judge on whether it holds water. 

Our friends over at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel aim to do something similar with PolitiFact, but unfortunately they often miss the mark. We feel that they function more to assign an arbitrary rating than to dig down and examine the full context of a remark and the overall point it is trying to make. 

Here’s an example.

 

Is Wisconsin Leading on Wages and Personal Income?

On Friday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s PolitiFact rated a claim by Gov. Scott Walker that “Wisconsin is #1 in the Midwest for personal income growth over the year.” The Journal Sentinel’s headline in the newspaper was, “State leads region in personal income” and PolitiFact then gave it its highest rating for truth. According to the numbers, the Journal Sentinel’s headline was totally false.

Actually there were two claims: one by the governor on rate of growth for the past year and the Journal Sentinel’s claim about Wisconsin leading the region in personal income. Starting with the claim by the governor, which seems out of sync with all of the stark economic statistics—dead last in the Midwest on job creation—we keep hearing about Wisconsin, something doesn’t quite make sense. 

So what’s the real story? 

Looking at the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data Walker cites, which is for the last four quarters, PolitiFact correctly notes that Wisconsin’s rate of personal income growth does in fact lead that of our surrounding states in the Midwest over the most recent one-year period. So they’re quick to give Walker a “True” rating. 

But PolitiFact fails to note several key data points that put the claim in context. In the first quarter of the four-quarter period used for this calculation, Wisconsin’s rate of personal income growth actually declined by 1%, putting the state in the bottom half of income growth for that quarter.

Looking at the Journal Sentinel’s PolitiFact headline on personal income, “State leads region in personal income,” we need to examine the overall economic performance of Wisconsin and its neighboring states. With a lower baseline from which to start, Wisconsin’s rate of growth did best a number of our Midwest neighbors in the past four quarters. But at $252 billion in overall personal income Wisconsin is only in the middle of the pack among Midwest states. For example, even though Wisconsin and Minnesota have similar geography and demographics, at $261 billion, Minnesota’s overall personal income is higher than Wisconsin’s despite having a smaller population. So by that metric we see that Wisconsin has fewer jobs than Minnesota and they pay less—hardly an indicator of economic success for our state. 

Our independent fact-checkers also checked the Bureau of Labor Statistics Quarterly Census of Wages and Employment data, the gold standard data for economists, to see how Wisconsin’s average weekly wages stack up. Again, we see Wisconsin trailing the national average on weekly wages and at $823 Wisconsin is also trailing our neighbors like Minnesota at $964, Michigan at $906 and Ohio at $859. 

Taking a step back, it’s clear the governor is shining a light on a lone bright spot by singling out an increase in the state’s rate of net annual personal income for four consecutive quarters. But does the claim really indicate a victory for Wisconsin’s economy? Over the most recent one-year period for which the most reliable federal data is available, Wisconsin is dead last in the Midwest in job creation, trails our neighbors like Minnesota when it comes to number of jobs, and trails the national average and our Midwest neighbors on weekly wages. PolitiFact found a success despite those sobering statistics, but you’ll have to be the judge on whether you agree.