PoliGraph: Fact-checking the president’s St. Paul speech

  1. Listen Catharine Richert talks with MPR News’ Tom Crann

President Barack Obama was in St. Paul today, announcing new funding for road and railway projects that will have the additional benefit of creating jobs.

He gave a short speech to a crowd at the newly refurbished Union Depot, which benefited in part from federal money.

PoliGraph was on the scene to test the truthfulness of some of Obama’s claims about jobs, the economy and transit.

Unemployment in Minnesota is “lower than it’s been in 6.5 years.”

Right now, seasonally adjusted unemployment as of Dec. 2013 is 4.6 percent. The last time it was that low was March, 2007, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. So, Obama is off by a few months but he’s basically correct.

Of course, it’s always important to view the unemployment rate in context. Minnesota’s low unemployment could reflect the fact that fewer and fewer people are looking for jobs. In Minnesota, the labor force participation rate is 69.9 percent – the lowest it has been since the early 1980s, said Oriane Casale, who is DEED’s assistant director of the Labor Market Information Office.

What’s up for debate is why those people aren’t looking for a job, she said.

“More than 5,000 construction workers from all over Minnesota helped to build [the Green Line], nearly 200 police officers, train operators, and maintenance workers are being hired.”

According to a fact sheet from the Met Council, Obama’s numbers are basically right. The Green Line created more than 5,000 construction jobs and 177 – nearly 200 – jobs are being created in operations and maintenance.

“Those at the top are doing better than ever while wages and incomes for a lot of families have barely budged.”

Statements like these are standard fare in Obama’s speeches.

But as the Washington Post’s Wonkblog points out in several illustrative graphs, wages and income for lower and middle class families have increased in the last few decades.

That said, the rate at which the wealthiest have gotten richer is much faster than the rest of us.

Here’s how a 2011 Congressional Budget Office put it:

“Income after transfers and federal taxes… for households at the higher end of the income scale rose much more rapidly than income for households in the middle and at the lower end of the income scale.”

Obama’s underlying point is fair: The gap between the richest and everyone else is widening.

“As a percentage of GDP, countries like China … are spending about twice what we’re spending in order to build infrastructure.”

There are a few sources to back up this claim.

The United States spends roughly 2 percent of its GDP on transportation infrastructure.

That’s far less than China, which reportedly spends upwards of 9 percent of its GDP on infrastructure. (Data from China is unreliable, says the Council on Foreign Affairs)

European countries surpass the United States on this front as well.

Extra Credit

I’m giving Obama extra credit for two things.

First, he got his Twin City right: Not once did he confuse St. Paul with Minneapolis.

He also said that North Carolinians are “soft” and can’t take the cold. This former North Carolinian can confirm that this is entirely true.

SOURCES

Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Unemployment numbers

Met Council, Green Line Fact Sheet

The Washington Post, Fact-Checking the 2014 State of the Union Address, by Glenn Kessler, January 28, 2014

The American Enterprise Institute, Why does Obama think income inequality is a bigger problem than unemployment?, by James Pethokoukis, July 24, 2013

The Congressional Budget Office, Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007, Oct. 2011

The Economist, Life in the slow lane, April 28, 2011

The Economist, The Cracks are Showing, June 26, 2008

Economic Reforms and Infrastructure Spending: Evidence from China and India, by Pinaki Chakraborty and Yan Zhang

The Congressional Budget Office, Public Spending on Transportation and Water Infrastructure, November 17, 2010

The Council on Foreign Relations, Road to Nowhere: Federal Transportation Infrastructure Policy, by Edward Alden, June 2012