Fact check: On economy, speech mingles truth with fantasy

Trump paints a contrast that the record doesn't show.

Welding photo
Photo by Felipe Mosquera from Unsplash

To anyone who heard President Donald Trump speak at a rally in Milwaukee last month, the State of the Union opening would probably have sounded familiar — down to the litany of his professed accomplishments three sentences in:

  • “Jobs are booming, incomes are soaring, poverty is plummeting, crime is falling…” — what has clearly become a favorite stump phrase of Trump’s in this election year. “The years of economic decay are over.”

The facts? Jobs are still on the upswing — topping 152 million in December 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. But they have been on that same trajectory since 2009 — in other words, all through the last seven years of former President Barack Obama’s two terms in office. 

Whatever “years of economic decay” Trump was talking about, that time period wouldn’t seem to meet the definition of the term. Economic growth in the range of 2.5% annually continues a pattern that goes back just as far, according to Marketwatch.

Like the rise in job numbers, the president’s trumpeted decline in poverty is real enough, based on U.S. Census Bureau data. But it, too, didn’t start when Trump entered the White House; the trend dates back to 2014. 

Pay is up some, BLS data show, about 3% or so  — not enough to qualify as “soaring.” Moreover, there are indications that wage increases are tamping down.

Crime, meanwhile, has been continuing a downward slide that began back in 1994, Pew Research reports — another trend that didn’t start on the president’s watch.

  • “From the instant I took office I moved rapidly to revive the U.S. economy, slashing a record number of job-killing regulations….”  

The Brookings Institution maintains an interactive web tool to track Trump’s deregulatory efforts. Whether Trump actually got rid of a “record number” might take a more robust research effort, but there’s little argument that his administration has at least tried to get rid of many, with mixed success.

Were they “job-killing,” though? The claim that regulations put a damper on employment has been advanced typically by trade associations and industry-funded think tanks, Academic researchers, however, say the evidence is far more complicated

  • “Since my election we have created 7 million new jobs, 5 million more than government experts projected during the previous administration.”

The 7 million jobs — a number he also used at the Milwaukee rally — appears to be technically accurate. But it’s not clear what Trump meant Tuesday night when he said that was “5 million more than government experts projected during the previous administration.”

Was he arguing with an internal forecast that was made by the previous administration? Considering that during the Obama years the economy grew by about 11 million jobs, that explanation doesn’t make much sense. 

Or was he saying that someone in the Obama White House made that pessimistic forecast looking ahead to Trump’s presidency?  He never elucidated.

  • “The unemployment rate is the lowest in over half a century. And very incredibly the average unemployment rate under my administration is lower than any administration in the history of our country.”

There’s no argument that Trump has benefited from a relatively low unemployment rate, currently about 3.3%. Like other economic indicators trending in his favor, the decrease in unemployment rates started dropping in the middle of Obama’s first term and has continued to do so over the course of a decade and two presidencies. 

During his Milwaukee visit, Trump called the current rate the lowest “in history,” ignoring that the rate was less than half what it is now at the end of World War II. Opting for a more modest comparison with “over half a century” he avoided repeating the error Tuesday night.

Yet in the very next sentence he seemed to repeat himself, then double down on the inaccurate claim of the lowest jobless rate in history.

Moreover, recent data suggests jobless rates are ticking upward in parts of the upper Midwest, including in Wisconsin. 

  • “The unemployment rate for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans has reached the lowest levels in history. African American youth unemployment has reached an all-time low.”

Available data suggest these claims are accurate as far as they go. But a deeper dive shows that enormous gaps remain between the economic well-being of African Americans and of whites that go beyond just one election cycle. 

  • “After decades of flat and falling incomes, wages are rising fast, and wonderfully they are rising fastest for low-income workers who have seen a 16% pay increase since my election.”

The reference to “flat and falling incomes” touches slightly on a reality that, for hourly workers, wage increases have been modest at best for decades as the gap between the wealthiest and the rest of the population has grown. 

But it overstates the current wage growth while it ignores other periods of real wage growth over the last 40 years.

According to researchers at the Economic Policy Institute, the largest wage hikes at the bottom of the income ladder have been for workers in states that increased their minimum wage.

Moreover, comparing wage increases at the bottom and the top of the income scale by percentage obscures the much higher dollar value of wage hikes at the upper end.

“Over the past three years, workers in the top 20% enjoyed average real wage gains of $2.61 per hour, five times the gains of workers in the bottom quintile and nearly 3.5 times the gains enjoyed in the middle 60%,” the EPI reports.

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.