“After years of record job loss, Wisconsin has gained over 140,000 jobs under Governor Walker, bringing the unemployment rate down to 4.6 percent, the lowest level since 2008.”
— Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), biography on Web site
“[Wisconsin’s] labor participation is far greater than the national level. Unemployment’s far lower.”
— Walker, interview on Fox News’ Sean Hannity Show, July 13, 2015
Jonathan Karl, ABC News correspondent: “So one of your central promises was that you were going to create 250,000 private sector jobs in Wisconsin. … You haven’t done it. I mean, you didn’t do it. You fell quite a bit short.”
Walker: “Yeah, we set a big, bold goal. We went from 8.1 percent unemployment December before I took office to last month we nearly cut that in half at 4.4 percent, well below the national unemployment rate. We’re going to continue to aim high both in our state. And if I was the candidate for president of the United States, I’d aim high as well there.”
— Exchange on ABC’s “This Week,” June 7, 2015
When Scott Walker ran for Wisconsin governor in 2010, his promise to create 250,000 jobs by 2015 became his mantra, repeated in nearly every interview and ad. He failed to fulfill it, but that has not stopped him from touting jobs and employment figures on the presidential campaign trail five years later.
We at The Fact Checker are critical of politicians claiming success in positive employment trends, which usually can’t be traced to a policy or decision of a single individual. Nonetheless, this is one of Walker’s major talking points, so we explored it. What happened to Wisconsin’s employment figures during Walker’s governorship?
Walker had called 250,000 jobs “my floor, not my ceiling” and “a minimum, just a base.” But now, on the campaign trail, he emphasizes it as a “big bold goal.” He points instead to the decrease in the state’s unemployment rate, increase in the labor participation rate, and how they compare to the national average.
Bureau of Labor Statistics data confirm that more than 140,000 private sector jobs have been created since he took office. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate did decrease from 8 percent when Walker took office in January 2011 to 4.6 percent in July 2015. The 4.6 percent is the lowest level since 2008 (the national average as of July 2015 is 5.3 percent).
Wisconsin’s labor force participation rate in July 2015 was 67.4 percent, about five percentage points higher than that month’s national rate, 62.6 percent. The BLS defines labor force participation rate as the percentage of the population that is either working or actively looking for work.
Side note: Wisconsin’s labor force participation rate in July 2015 was the lowest it had been since Walker took office in 2011. But of course that fact did not make it into his talking points.
Walker says Wisconsin’s rates are “far higher” and “far lower” than the national average. The state’s unemployment rate is 0.7 percent lower than the national rate, and its labor force participation rate is 4.8 percentage points higher than the national rate. The numbers are not as dramatic as he makes them sound.
There are other important caveats missing in his claims.
BLS officials warn against comparing state averages to national averages. For one, state averages are seasonally adjusted individually on the state level, so the numbers do not add up to the national level. Each region may have unique factors that affect employment and labor force participation trends. Wisconsin was among the lowest-ranking Midwestern states in its percentage growth of private sector jobs in 2014.
Wisconsin traditionally has had a lower unemployment rate than national average, and a comparable or higher labor participation rate than the national average. Wisconsin’s labor force participation rate was higher than the national average even before Walker became governor. And the Wisconsin unemployment rate consistently has been lower than the national average since 1985. So while Walker touts the figures as a success, it is not a trend out of the ordinary or unique to his term.
The unemployment and labor force participation figures come from the BLS Current Population Survey, which is the household survey and includes self-reported employment and people who work on family farms. That can skew the Wisconsin numbers because of the industries related to farming, said Menzie Chinn, economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel also reported that among the reasons for the unemployment rate decreasing under Walker was that some unemployed people either gave up searching for a job or went back to school, and disappeared from the overall pool of jobless people.
In 2011, Walker replaced the state commerce department with a public-private economic development agency, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., to stimulate job creation in the state. But the agency has become enveloped in financial and operational problems. Numerous audits and news reports have found ineffective and inappropriate policies, and that it failed to follow legal requirements. Earlier this year, the agency disclosed that it had again failed to track how loans and grants, funded by taxpayer money, were being spent by their recipients.
While Walker uses the jobs, unemployment and labor force participation statistics to show his success as governor, he has shifted his rhetoric in recent interviews on exactly whose role it is to create jobs: “I think most of us believe our cities and towns and people create jobs, not the government.”
The Pinocchio Test
Walker cites figures from BLS data on the number of new jobs created, and the rate of unemployment and labor force participation. However, the context in which he uses these figures exaggerate the progress under his term and deflect from his failure to keep a major campaign promise.
This shift in rhetoric is important. Anyone who followed Walker’s campaign for governor will remember his “250,000” jobs promise. Now, on the campaign trail, Walker instead focuses on the decreased unemployment rate and increased labor participation rate compared to the national level.
His characterization that the Wisconsin unemployment rate is “far lower” and the labor force participation rate is “far higher” than national rate is misleading. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is not quite one percentage point lower than the national average, and labor force participation rate is roughly five percentage points higher than the national average. Even if state-versus-national comparisons were kosher — and they are not, according to BLS — the trends Walker highlights are not unique to his term as governor. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate was lower than national, and its labor force participation rate was higher than national, since before he took office.
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