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By Dave Umhoefer October 17, 2014

Mary Burke says Walker at fault for nearly $3,000 drop in incomes

Democrat Mary Burke wasted no time in her first debate with Gov. Scott Walker, rolling out a blistering economic critique in her opening statement.

Beyond the expected reference to Walker’s failure to spur creation of 250,000 jobs as he promised, Burke unveiled a new talking point.

"His approach isn’t working," she said Oct. 10, 2014. "The typical Wisconsin family has actually seen their real income drop by nearly $3,000 in the last four years. $3,000!"

Not so fast, the Republican Party of Wisconsin countered, quickly issuing a news release with this headline: "Mary Burke Opens Her Disastrous Debate Appearance With A New Lie."

Let’s go to the Truth-O-Meter.

When asked for backup, the Burke campaign cited income figures reported by the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families following the Sept. 17, 2014 release of data through the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The American Community Survey is the preferred method for tracking year-to-year changes in median household income at the state level. It is based on a random sampling of residents from every state.

The income figures are adjusted for inflation, allowing apples-to-apples comparisons over time. Burke called it "real" income, the technical term for the inflation-adjusted approach.

The most recent survey year reported 2013 income. So to track the four-year trend, as Burke did, you have to start with 2009 as a baseline and measure changes across 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Burke’s camp did just that -- but there’s a problem with the method, as we shall see in a moment.

Here’s what the survey reported:


Median household income

Dollar change

Percent change











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Source:  American Community Survey


That $2,743 drop was big enough drop to be statistically significant, even when considering the survey’s margin of error, census officials told us.

And Burke describes it as "nearly $3,000" -- a characterization generally on target, though that $257 difference is not insubstantial.

There’s trouble here, though, for Burke.

She associates Walker, and Walker alone, with the four-year period she discusses. That sounds reasonable on the surface; the governor’s term is four years, and it’s ending.

But there’s no 2014 data yet, so to get four full years Burke has to dip back into the final year (2010) of Walker’s Democratic predecessor, Gov. Jim Doyle.

In other words, the census data she cites covers one year from the Doyle era and three years of Walker’s time.

Indeed, most of the income drop Burke cites was in 2010, Doyle’s final year, when the median household income fell $1,893 or 3.5 percent.

The drop under Walker, in his first three years, amounts to $850, or 1.6 percent.

The blame game on economic matters is tricky under the best circumstances. The lingering effects of the national recession, Walker’s cuts to public workers’ disposable income, his tax cuts, the below-average pace of job creation, the national economy -- all those factors and more play into fluctuations in income.

But in this instance Burke blames Walker for something that largely occurred before his watch, providing a distorted view for voters.

Our rating

Saying that his approach hasn’t worked, Burke blamed Walker for income losses, saying, "the typical Wisconsin family has actually seen their real income drop by nearly $3,000 in the last four years."

While median household income in Wisconsin has fallen $2,743 in four years, most of the drop occurred before Walker took office in 2011,

We rate the claim Mostly False.

To comment on this item, go to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s web page.

Our Sources

Wisconsin Gubernatorial Debate, CSPAN video, Oct. 10, 2014

American Community Survey, CPO3 Table, Comparative Economic Characteristics, 2013 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, accessed Oct. 15, 2014

Email exchange with Tamarine Cornelius, research analyst at the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families, Oct. 15, 2014

Interview with Carmen DeNavas-Walt, survey statistician, US Census Bureau, Oct. 15, 2014

Interview with Kirby Posey, survey statistician, US Census Bureau, Oct. 15, 2014

Email exchange with Stephanie Wilson of the Burke campaign, Oct. 15, 2014

Email exchange with Laura Dresser, associate director, Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS), Oct. 15, 2014

Email exchange with Dale Knapp, research director, Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, Oct. 15, 2014

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Dave Umhoefer

Mary Burke says Walker at fault for nearly $3,000 drop in incomes

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