The Conversation

Few Fact-Checkers Mention Obama's Misleading Wage Gap Claim

Last night one of Obama's biggest applause lines was his repetition of a misleading statistic about the wage gap between men and women. This specific claim has been rebutted numerous times and yet in Wednesday morning fact checks many news outlets decided to skip it entirely.

For 20 seconds, Congress applauded the claim that women make "77 cents for every dollar a man earns." It was probably the second or third biggest applause line of the night. In other words, it was a conspicuous factual claim, the kind of thing you would expect self-described fact-checkers to investigate. But many of the news outlets who offered fact checks on the State of the Union overlooked this claim for some reason.

  • ABC has a 13 point fact-check which failed to mention the President's wage gap claim.
  • Associated Press chose 5 statements to fact-check but skipped the wage gap.
  • CBS offered a round-up of fact-checkers which doesn't mention the wage gap.
  • Politico fact-checked 5 of the President's claims but skipped over the wage gap.
  • Annenberg's Fact Check looked at 5 statements but not the wage gap. This is especially odd because Annenberg has previously fact-checked this claim and found it was an exaggeration.
  • Politifact mentions the wage gap claim and finds it "largely right" once again proving that Politifact is largely incompetent.

Finally, Kudos to the Washington Post which did fact-check the wage gap claim along with five other statements. As Glenn Kessler points out, the President's "77 cents for every dollar" figure comes from the Census Bureau. It's a raw comparison of what men earn for full time employment vs. what women earn. No adjustment is made for differences in education, working hours or even the actual jobs men and women choose. In other words, the fact that men are more likely to choose work as engineers rather than, say, teachers is overlooked, making this an extremely misleading comparison.

As Annenberg noted back in 2012, Obama's own Dept. of Labor attributed 60 percent of the wage gap to factors other than discrimination. So if Obama were remotely interested in making an honest claim he would have said women make 91 cents for every dollar a man earns. Other analyses suggest the gap may be even smaller. From the Washington Post:

Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis surveyed economic literature and concluded that “research suggests that the actual gender wage gap (when female workers are compared with male workers who have similar characteristics) is much lower than the raw wage gap.” They cited one survey, prepared for the Labor Department, which concluded that when such differences are accounted for, much of the hourly wage gap dwindled, to about 5 cents on the dollar.

Whether the actual figure is 91 cents or 95 cents (or even less as Prof. Steve Horowitz argues), the President's claim about the wage gap was a gross overstatement. Given the response this line got from Congress and the broad consensus that the claim is misleading, it's difficult to understand why so many fact-checkers chose to give the President a pass on this one.

 


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