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By James B. Nelson October 3, 2014

Mary Burke says Wisconsin is last in Midwest job growth under latest figures

A new TV ad from Democratic candidate for governor Mary Burke plows some familiar ground, arguing that Wisconsin is heading in the wrong direction in terms of job creation.

The ad began airing Sept. 23, 2014, several days after the latest set of jobs numbers were issued.

It opens with a narrator saying "It’s happened again. The new August jobs numbers are out, and Wisconsin lost another 4,300 jobs."

The narrator then cites Gov. Scott Walker’s now-unreachable pledge to create 250,000 private-sector jobs, criticizes "tax cuts to the wealthy" and cuts to education, and continues with a claim that has become a Burke campaign mantra:

"And we’ve fallen to dead last in Midwest job growth."

The ad meshes together two batches of jobs data that were released Sept. 18, 2014.

The first is an initial estimate of monthly performance for August 2014, based on numbers that can fluctuate widely because they are based on a small sample of employers. The second is the more accurate quarterly numbers, this batch covering the first three months of 2014.

We have been here before. Sort of.

On Aug. 31, 2014, we rated True a claim from a Burke TV ad that "Wisconsin’s dead last in Midwest job growth." At the time, the most recent quarterly numbers went to the end of 2013, so they matched quite nicely with the first three years of Walker’s term.

But, as the calendar changed, so did the numbers.

In the first ad, Burke used a footnote on the screen to bolster her claim. In this one, the fine print illustrates how she has subtly shifted the time frame to her advantage.

And the way the August drop is juxtaposed with the "dead last" language further confuses the matter.

In short, the otherwise accurate numbers reach a conclusion that’s greater than the sum of their parts.

Time frame

Let’s start with the first ad. As noted, it relied on numbers that covered Walker’s full first three years in office. In that time frame, Wisconsin was indeed last among other Midwest states.

What’s more, Wisconsin also ranked last if you looked strictly at the most recent one-year period. So, the short-term view and the long-term one matched. We felt Burke had used a fair approach and we rated the claim True.

This time, there is a critical difference.

In her latest ad, Burke shifts the time frame and in doing so loses track of Walker’s term. This time, the footnote says the claim is based on numbers that compare March 2011 to March 2014.

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Burke’s campaign points out that this data is the most recent available and that you cannot combine full-year with partial-year data. And that in the window from March 2011 to March 2014 Wisconsin does rank last in the Midwest.

True enough.

But that timeframe does not correspond well with anything. It misses entirely the first three months of Walker’s term. What’s more, it masks an important fact.

When reviewing economic data, a common yardstick is to examine year-over-year performance to gauge trends. And in that 12-month time frame -- March 2013 to March 2014 -- Wisconsin no longer ranks "dead last" in the Midwest.

We’ve climbed out of the cellar, past Illinois and Minnesota, and rank eighth of 10 states. A modest improvement, to be sure. But an improvement.

When asked about the claim, Burke campaign spokesman Joe Zepecki said: "While it is true that we rank 8th out of 10 Midwestern states from March 2013 to March 2014, we clearly indicated in the ad that we are using the time period that better reflects the Governor's full term in office, not just the last year."

But it doesn’t accurately reflect the governor’s full time in office.

And it strikes us not as an effort to be most current, but a clever way to maintain a powerful talking point.

Consider: When the next set of quarterly data comes out, it will cover the quarter that ends in June 2014. Using Burke’s approach would lop off the first six months of Walker’s term. In the quarter after that, the first nine months would be gone.

What’s more, the ad co-mingles monthly and quarterly data in a way that helps obscure the recent improvement. And its verbiage also serves to confuse viewers.

The narrator cites the preliminary August jobs count, which did show a drop of 4,300 from the previous month. But when combined with the language used -- "And we’ve fallen to dead last in Midwest job growth" -- it suggests that falling to the bottom is a new development.

For the first three years of Walker’s term, Wisconsin did rank last in the Midwest -- both for the three years as a whole, and in each of the individual years.That’s a true statement, and we have rated it as such.

But while the calendar moved ahead, this claim from Burke has remained stuck in the past.

In the last 12-month period that can be analyzed, the period economists most typically measure, Wisconsin moved out of the cellar.

Finally, it’s worth noting that since this ad was first aired, the Burke campaign has turned to another ad that has a variation of this claim. In that ad, she defends copying parts of her jobs plan by suggesting if Walker had borrowed good ideas from other states "maybe we wouldn’t be dead last in Midwest jobs growth."

However, this time there isn’t even a footnote.

Our rating

Burke’s ad renews the claim that Wisconsin rates last in the Midwest in terms of job creation. She’s arrives at that conclusion by citing accurate data, but by using an unconventional shift in the time frame to make her point.

The ad also ignores the most recent 12-month performance -- a common yardstick for economists -- that says Wisconsin’s performance improved and was better than two other Midwest states.

We rate the claim False.

(Read our tipsheet on five things to watch for when you hear jobs claims)

Our Sources

Mary Burke campaign television ad, Sept. 23, 2014

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Wisconsin’s private sector job growth ranks 33rd in the U.S., quarterly report shows" Sept. 19, 2014

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Wisconsin posts job gains but still lags behind national average," June 19, 2014

PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Mary Burke says Wisconsin ranks last in Midwest job growth," Aug. 31, 2014

PolitiFact Wisconsin Walk-o-Meter

Email Joe Zepecki, spokesman, Mary Burke campaign, Sept. 24, 2014

US Bureau of Labor Statistics Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, Sept. 18, 2014

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by James B. Nelson

Mary Burke says Wisconsin is last in Midwest job growth under latest figures

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