The Truth-O-Meter Says:
Obama

The minimum wage "in real terms right now is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office."

Barack Obama on Wednesday, December 4th, 2013 in a speech at the Center for American Progress

Barack Obama says minimum wage is lower now than under Harry Truman

One of the major messages in President Barack Obama’s Dec. 4, 2013, speech on the economy was that Americans deserve a raise.

"It's well past the time to raise a minimum wage that in real terms right now is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office," Obama said in an address at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

We have previously checked an Obama claim that the minimum wage is "lower right now than it was when Ronald Reagan took office." We rated that Mostly True. But we hadn’t heard the claim about Truman, so we decided to take a look.

The minimum wage, as written into law, has been $7.25 an hour since 2009. Here’s a table that covers the years of Truman’s tenure in office. We calculated the inflation-adjusted wage using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator.

 

Year

Nominal minimum wage

Real minimum wage (2013 dollars)

1945

0.40

5.19

1946

0.40

4.79

1947

0.40

4.19

1948

0.40

3.88

1949

0.40

3.93

1950

0.75

7.27

1951

0.75

6.74

1952

0.75

6.61

2013

7.25

7.25

 

So in 1950 -- which was during Truman’s time in office -- the inflation-adjusted minimum wage was $7.27, which is higher than today’s minimum wage. Two cents more isn’t a lot, but it’s enough to give some credibility to the president’s claim.

We should add, however, that 1950 was the exception. That was the year the minimum wage was raised -- indeed, it was nearly doubled. And with each subsequent year, inflation ate away at the wage’s purchasing power.

Ultimately, during seven out of the eight calendar years when Truman was in office, the inflation-adjusted minimum wage was lower than it is today -- not higher.

Does that matter? It’s a judgment call.

"The point wasn’t to isolate the eight years of Truman presidency, but the fact that we’re back at the same level as it was in 1950," said Bobby Whithorne, a White House spokesman.

Gary Burtless, an economist with the Brookings Institution, agreed.

"A lawyer defending the president’s wording would add that the president did not say the current minimum wage is lower than it was in every single year of President Truman’s tenure in office," Burtless said. "Some of President Obama’s listeners would no doubt be stunned to (learn) that the purchasing power of the current minimum wage is below its purchasing power in any year of the Truman administration, even if the difference is only two cents per hour."

Our ruling

Obama said the minimum wage "in real terms right now is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office." That’s correct for 1950, but incorrect for the other seven calendar years of Truman’s tenure. In fact, you could just as easily say that the minimum wage is higher today than it was under Truman, and that would be correct for seven out of the eight years he was in office. The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context, so we rate it Half True.

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About this statement:

Published: Wednesday, December 4th, 2013 at 4:44 p.m.

Subjects: Economy, History, Workers

Sources:

Barack Obama, speech at the Center for American Progress, Dec. 4, 2013

Congressional Research Service, "Inflation and the Real Minimum Wage:: A Fact Sheet," Sept. 12, 2013

U.S. Department of Labor, "History of Federal Minimum Wage Rates Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 1938 - 2009," accessed July 31, 2013

Bureau of Labor Statistics, inflation calculator, accessed July 31, 2013

PolitiFact, "Barack Obama says minimum wage pays less now than when Ronald Reagan was sworn in," July 31, 2013

Email interview with Gary Burtless, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, Dec. 4, 2013

Email interview with Tara Sinclair, economist at George Washington University, Dec. 4, 2013

Email interview with Bobby Whithorne, White House spokesman, Dec. 4, 2013

Written by: Louis Jacobson
Researched by: Louis Jacobson
Edited by: Amy Hollyfield

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