“People are legitimately unhappy. The average person is about $3,000 or $4,000 a year worse off today than when President Obama came to office, [so] you can understand the anxiety and the desire for a kind of quick turnaround.”
— Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), remarks during interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” May 31, 2016
The U.S. economy changes from month to month. But old talking points never seem to die.
In explaining the appeal of businessman Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, McConnell cited an exceedingly old set of numbers about median household income. Let’s explore.
During the 2012 campaign, the Wall Street Journal wrote an editorial titled the “Negative $4,019,” claiming that the Obama years have been brutal on middle-class incomes. The editorial cited research on median household incomes by the nonpartisan economic consulting firm Sentier Research. The firm had produced a report, such as this one, which had documented the serious decline in inflation-adjusted median income in the aftermath of the Great Recession — which lasted from December 2007 to June 2009, six months after Obama took office.
The $4,000 number was picked up by Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and even made it into a campaign ad.
Many Republicans, including McConnell, echoed a version of the statistic. (McConnell in January 2015 told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that “middle- and lower-income Americans are about $3,000 a year worse off than they were when he came to office.”)
The advantage of Sentier’s research is that the firm produces a monthly snapshot, using data from the Census Bureau’s monthly household survey, which is used to also calculate the national unemployment rate. The Census Bureau uses the same data to come up with an annual figure — but the most recent number is for 2014. By contrast, Sentier has an income figure for April 2016, meaning it is more up-to-date. Each month, Sentier recalculates the numbers dating to 2000 to adjust for inflation, meaning the latest report has all of the data in April 2016 dollars.
Gordon Green, one of the principals at the firm, provided The Fact Checker with a spreadsheet of the monthly data, with the request that not all of the numbers be posted on the Internet because of proprietary issues. Here is the median household income for key months during the recession and afterward:
December 2007 (start of recession): $56,900
January 2009 (Obama takes office): $57,143
June 2009 (end of recession): $55,859
August 2011 (lowest point for income under Obama): $52,115
August 2012 (WSJ editorial): $53,077
January 2015 (GOP takes control of Senate): $55,278
March 2016 (high point under Obama): $57,496
April 2016 (most recent figure): $57,243
As you can see, even after taking into account the impact of inflation, median household income is now slightly higher than when Obama took office, not “$3,000 to $4,000” lower. It slipped slightly from March to April, but Green says it is not unusual for the number to bounce around on a monthly basis. What’s more important, he said, is that “it’s been on a steady increase since August, 2011. You can see that we have come back quite a bit.”
Green noted that the United States suffered through a very serious financial recession, “which takes a while to turn around.” In fact, median household income was already on an upward swing when the Wall Street Journal editorial appeared. Now, median household income is more than $5,000 higher than at its lowest point in Obama’s presidency, an increase of almost 10 percent.
Just in the past two years, median income has grown by $2,000, according to Sentier.
To be sure, the Sentier data (and Census Bureau annual data) does show that since 2000, the last year of the Bill Clinton administration, median household income has been largely flat. (It was $57,576 in January 2000.) In other words, flat growth in income has extended over two full presidential terms.
That’s the other problem with McConnell’s statement, besides being woefully out of date. The recession, which caused the drop in household income, began well before Obama became president. Obama did take steps to mitigate the crisis, so perhaps he can share in the blame (or the credit) for how the economy has performed since then. But a president has only limited control over the overall direction of the economy.
The $4,000 figure used by Republicans in 2012 was simply a snapshot in time. The picture is significantly brighter now, despite GOP efforts to still talk in shades of doom and gloom.
McConnell’s office had no real response, except to forward a recent Pew Research report regarding a decline in median household income from 1999 to 2014. However, the data in that report is not as recent as the Sentier data — which, after all, was the basis of the original GOP talking point. The office also sent a New York Times article that mentioned a decline in household income since Clinton left office (apparently based on old data) — but McConnell’s quote was about Obama. So we were not sure what the point was.
Finally, McConnell’s office pointed to annual Census data that showed median household income of $54,925 in 2009 and $53,657 in 2014 (the most recent year available). That’s a negative $1,300 in 2014 dollars. That’s certainly much less than “$3,000 or $4,000.” Moreover, as we have shown, it is out of date, according to the source cited by Republicans in the past.
The Pinocchio Test
With the unemployment rate at about 5 percent — half the level in Obama’s first year — McConnell should have checked before uttering such a stale talking point. Instead, he reached back to a statistic that is four years out of date — and assigns far too much credit to a president for the state of the economy.
Virtually no growth in inflation-adjusted income since 2000 is a legitimate issue. But it is not an Obama-specific issue. McConnell needs to come up with a different explanation for Donald Trump’s rise — and why people are “legitimately angry.” In the meantime, he earns Four Pinocchios.
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