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Romney campaign’s misleading stats: women in the Obama economy

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When you look at the facts, there are 2.7 million more women without health insurance today than when Barack Obama took office; 858,000 fewer women working today than when President Obama took office. We have actually now the highest number of single-mother families living in poverty than at any time in recorded history — a 14 percent increase since President Obama took office.”

The fact is, what we have now is the U.S. economy is a hostile workplace for women under President Obama because it’s harder to get a job.” — Senior Romney campaign advisor Ed Gillespie on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” April 29, 2012

The debate over which party promises a better future for women continued on Sunday, with NBC’s “Meet the Press” pitting various strategists and pundits against each other throughout the show. Host David Gregory pointed out that the female voting bloc represents the “deciders” in the 2012 election. President Obama holds a clear advantage with this demographic, but Romney chipped away at the double-digit lead last month.

Democrats have pushed for free contraceptive coverage, equal pay and renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, while Republicans such as Ed Gillespie, one of the top advisors for presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, try to drive home the notion that women have fared worse than men during the Obama administration. As Gillespie put it, “It’s still the economy, and women aren’t stupid.”

Let’s look at the numbers Gillespie brought up. Are they accurate? Do they tell the whole story?

The Facts

Gillespie relied on data from the U.S. Census Bureau for his insurance numbers. Just like he said, the number of uninsured women has increased by about 2.7 million under Obama, according to the most recent data. But the latest Census numbers come from 2010, so that figure doesn’t represent the president’s entire tenure.

Conveniently, 2010 is the same year Obama signed the Affordable Care Act. As such, many provisions of the health-care reform law hadn’t taken effect when the data was collected. (A few notable exceptions: The high-risk pool for people with pre-existing conditions started that year, as did the requirement for insurers to provide coverage to dependents ages 19 through 25.)

The federal insurance mandate, due to start in 2014 if the Supreme Court does not overturn the law, is expected to lower the number of uninsured across the board, whether by threat of penalties or through government assistance.

The Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that “13 million more uninsured women will gain coverage by 2016” because of the Affordable Care Act. Most of the uninsured will receive help through Medicaid or tax breaks, according to the report. Furthermore, the agency claims that more than 1 million women have already gained access to insurance because of the law.

Overall, Gillespie’s number is outdated, and it doesn’t account for progress that has been made since 2010, nor any progress that might be in store should the Supreme Court uphold the health-care reform law.

As for the number of women working today, Gillespie is correct that the number of unemployed females older than 16 increased by 858,000 between January 2009 and March 2012. But we should note that Obama inherited a deep recession that lasted until June 2009. Since then, the number of unemployed for this demographic has dropped by 141,000.

The Romney campaign brought up a fair point by noting that these unemployment figures could be worse if we counted the number of women who have left the workforce. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the seasonally adjusted participation rate dropped from 59.4 percent in January 2009 to 57.7 in March 2012, with the latter rate being the lowest since April 1993.

In terms of single moms living below the poverty level, Gillespie correctly noted that the number has increased by 14 percent, jumping from 4.2 million in 2008 to 4.7 million in 2010. But again, he relied on Census information that has likely changed by now.

Romney’s campaign argued that Gillespie used the latest data available. A spokeswoman asked, “What else would you have us do?” The answer: find other data points — preferably more timely ones — to make your case.

Putting the timeline aside, Gillespie failed to add context to the raw numbers. In this case, he should have shown the percentage of single moms living below the poverty level. After all, this demographic expanded in part because of the overall growth in population.

Looking at the data in context, 28.7 percent of single moms were living in poverty in 2008 compared to 31.6 percent in 2010, an increase of 2.9 percent. Contrary to what Gillespie said, that’s not the worst jump in recorded history. In fact, there was a greater three-year rise during George H.W. Bush’s presidency: 3.4 percent from 1989 through 1991.

It’s also worth nothing that the 2010 single-mother poverty rate of 31.6 percent is better than almost every year between 1959 and 1997, with the only exceptions being 1978 and 1979. Historically speaking, single moms are still doing fairly well.

Here’s a graph from Lori Williams at Tableau Software to help readers visualize the data:

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The Facts

Gillespie used accurate figures, but he still misled viewers with at least two of his three claims. He used outdated data on the number of uninsured women, which not only fails to account for the past 16 months, but also leads the average listener to believe he is talking about 2012 figures. He also didn’t acknowledge provisions of the health-care reform law that are expected to boost the people receiving coverage in coming years, which is relevant information when talking about the effects that Obama’s policies are having on women.

With unemployment, Gillespie compared the latest data to Obama’s first month in office, when the president’s economic policies hadn’t yet taken hold. We generally allow some degree of leeway in this regard, but it’s important to note that Obama’s numbers are almost always better when you start at the end of the recession.

Finally, Gillespie should have compared the number of single mothers living in poverty to the overall number of single mothers. The resulting percentage would have still shown that the level is high, but not nearly as historic as he makes it out to be. Instead, Romney’s advisor hid the ball, ignoring a standard mathematical rule for putting numbers in proper context. And again, he used 2010 Census data, which does not reflect the past 16 months of modest economic growth.

The Romney campaign lobbied for a low Pinocchio rating for Gillespie’s remarks, noting that we awarded just One Pinocchio to a recent anti-Romney ad that took selective, but relatively accurate, facts about his past and his proposals, but left out important context. Here’s what we concluded about that video:

“It is carefully written, so none of the claims, by themselves, are factually inaccurate, though one can quibble with certain phrases (“cuts”). The overall picture is harshly negative and lacking context, but in 30 seconds, what would one expect?”
The anti-Romney ad certainly lacked balance, since it failed to tell both sides of the story. But Gillespie’s comments are different. They dealt with true statistical “facts,” for which there are standard mathematical rules that transcend political prerogatives. Think of it this way: few answers are flat-wrong in essay-writing, but the same is not true of arithmetic.

We’ve often awarded Two Pinocchios for “true” but misleading statistical claims. Readers can check out a few examples with our columns on hyped-up Buffett Rule stats, Nancy Pelosi’s job and tax-cut claims, and GOP talking points on long-term unemployment.

Overall, Gillespie earns two Pinocchios for exaggerating the president’s already unflattering numbers.

Two Pinocchios

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