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Gov. Scott Walker has long emphasized falling unemployment rates as evidence that Wisconsin’s sluggish job growth is heading in the right direction.
In his January 2013 "state of the state" speech, Walker highlighted the decline from 7.8 percent unemployment the month before he took office in January 2011 to the 6.7 percent figure for December 2012.
Now, with the recent uptick to 7.1 percent unemployment in the first quarter of 2013, Walker has reworked his message.
Asked by host Mike Gousha on WISN-TV’s Upfront show about Democrats criticizing him for focusing on a potential presidential bid instead of the governorship, Walker replied:
"They can’t argue with the success. We went from unemployment at 9.2 percent when I decided to run for governor four years ago to two points lower. The deficit was $3.6 billion when I took office. We now have a half a billion dollar surplus."
Let’s take a look at the new talking point on the unemployment rate.
Walker says the success of his economic agenda is supported by the fact that "we went from unemployment at 9.2 percent when I decided to run for governor four years ago to two points lower."
Is he right?
According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures from monthly household surveys, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate peaked as the Great Recession officially ended in mid-2009.
That peak -- 9.2 percent -- is the figure Walker selected as a four-year comparison point.
And it did fall 2.1 points in that time, so the numbers are accurate.
But the statement is complicated by other factors, especially the phrase "when I decided to run." The unemployment rate was surging up in late 2008 and early 2009, so the timing makes a big difference.
For instance, Walker officially announced his long-expected candidacy in spring 2009. The most recent unemployment figure at the time was 8.4 percent.
But news reports as far back as August 2008 described Walker as "expected" to run. The latest unemployment rate at that time was 4.7 percent.
When we asked Team Walker for backup, spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster said, "he is not referring to the specific moment he decided to run, but generally to the climate during the time he decided to run four years ago."
Doyle and Walker
Then there’s the issue of who gets credit for the drop from 2009 to 2013; Walker couched the two-point decline as part of "the success" he can point to as governor.
Here’s the timeline:
-- From its 9.2 percent peak in June-July 2009, the rate fell almost monthly during the late stages of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s second term, dropping 1.4 points to the 7.8 percent mark in December 2010 when Doyle left office.
So exactly two-thirds of the drop Walker mentions happened on his predecessor’s watch.
-- After Walker took office in January 2011, the rate ticked down but was essentially flat for nine months before falling slowly to 6.7. Then it reversed course early in 2013, taking some of the luster off the positive trend. That left the total drop during Walker’s time at 0.7 points.
So one-third of the drop compared to four years ago came during Walker’s administration.
We asked Webster about this, and she responded in an email: "The Governor was providing a frame of reference for where we were and where we are now."
A bit of perspective, before we wrap up.
Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is lower than the national figure (7.1 vs. 7.6 percent). Among seven Midwest states, Wisconsin trails far behind Iowa (4.7) and Minnesota (5.3), but is well ahead of Illinois (9.3), Indiana (8.5) and Michigan (8.4).
Wisconsin is fourth of the seven states in improvement in the unemployment rate since the month Walker took office in 2011.
Walker said the success of his agenda is supported by the fact that "we went from unemployment at 9.2 percent when I decided to run for governor four years ago to two points lower."
Walker’s numbers are on target if you go back "four years."
But he muddies the waters by describing that as when he "decided to run" -- and that skews the picture when it comes to improvement. His decision came at an earlier date, when the unemployment rate was either much lower (at the time of his official announcement) or even lower than that (when he was unofficially running).
Finally, the construction of the claim is misleading in part on the issue of who gets credit for the improvement. He discloses that he’s going back in time before he was governor but omits Doyle’s record and claims the "success" as his, glossing over the fact that only one-third of the gains took place on his watch.
There’s an element of truth here, but critical facts are left out.
That’s why we’re rating his statement Mostly False.
Mike Gousha interview with Gov. Scott Walker, WISN’s Upfront show, June 2, 2013
Email exchange with Jocelyn Webster, communications director, Gov. Scott Walker’s office, June 10, 11, 2013
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin unemployment rate history table, accessed June 10, 2013
Interview with Gary Steinberg, Bureau of Labor Statistics press officer, June 10, 2013
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,"It’s official: Walker in race for governor," April 28, 2009
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