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By James B. Nelson August 31, 2014
By Dave Umhoefer August 31, 2014

Mary Burke says Wisconsin ranks last in Midwest job growth

If Mary Burke has said it once, she’s said it a thousand times: "Wisconsin’s dead last in Midwest job growth."

The Democratic candidate for governor uses the line in TV ads, in interviews and her stump speech, all aimed at countering Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s message that "Wisconsin is back on" after the Great Recession. Burke’s allies repeat the claim.

One example, from a Burke campaign television spot that first aired in July 2014:

"It’s Walker’s agency that gave millions in tax breaks to companies that relocated jobs overseas. Another reason Wisconsin’s dead last in Midwest job growth."

As this is spoken, the TV spot rolls through a list of nine states before settling on Wisconsin at the bottom: North Dakota, Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois.

With a new Walker TV ad bragging that we’re third in the Midwest in job growth, we thought it was time to look at both claims. In both cases, and like so many claims in a campaign that any numbers nerd would love, evaluation depends on two things: the timeframe and the measuring stick.

In the Burke ad, the narrator in the spot doesn’t say what time frame was analyzed.

But the fine print in the ad cites data collected for the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. And the footnote says the ad compares quarter four of 2010 -- the last before Walker took office -- to quarter four of 2013. That is still the latest available quarterly data.

That data, reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is considered the most exhaustive and credible for employment trends. It is based on a census of 96 percent of all American non-farm employers.

Our examination of the data for the three-year period cited by Burke shows Wisconsin 10th out of the 10 states --  "dead last" -- just below Illinois when it comes to growth in private-sector jobs.

"The low growth in jobs in Wisconsin has been matched by very low income growth and poor levels of consumer spending," University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee labor economist John Heywood told us. "The state has been slower than its peers in recovering from the recession."

Nationally, Wisconsin ranked 35th.

Here’s the regional picture:

State and midwest ranking on percentage growth in jobs Dec. 2010-Dec. 2013

Percentage change in employment

National rank on percentage change

1. North Dakota



2. Michigan



3. Indiana



4. Minnesota



5. Nebraska



6. Ohio


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7. South Dakota



8. Iowa



9. Illinois



10. Wisconsin




Burke ranks the states by the percentage of growth. That is preferred by economists for state-by-state comparisons because it shows performance regardless of the state’s population.

By another measure -- raw number of jobs created -- Wisconsin ranked sixth-best of the 10 states, we found.

Limitations to the data

There are two statistical points to consider.

The most important is the definition of "Midwest."

Both Burke and Walker use the 10 states we mentioned. There’s a good case to be made for that: The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Midwest regional office covers those 10 states.

We found other instances in which the agency adds Missouri and Kansas into the Midwestern mix, for a total of 12 states. In that larger group, Wisconsin finishes 11th of 12, ahead of Missouri.

Previously we rated Half True a Burke claim in January 2014 that Wisconsin was last in the Midwest. The numbers worked out, but we faulted Burke mainly for a too-narrow comparison. She said Midwest, but looked only at the four states adjoining Wisconsin.

We noted that at that time, before the 2013 numbers were complete, that Ohio and Nebraska (from the group of 10) and Missouri (from the more expansive BLS group of 12) had slower growth rates than Wisconsin.

Finally, because it’s so comprehensive, reporting of the quarterly jobs data lags by at least six months, meaning the picture may be a bit outdated by the time it is released.

The next quarterly jobs figures, covering the first quarter of 2014, are set for mid-September release.

There is more recent jobs data available, from the monthly Current Employment Statistics surveys, but it’s based on a sample of only about 3 percent of employers. Those figures are prone to large margins of error but are also a widely cited source on job trends.

Walker has called the quarterly data the "gold standard," and has criticized the monthly data. But he has cited the monthly data, and does so in his new ad.

Burke has used both at various times as well.

Indeed, she was using the less-reliable monthly data back when we rated her earlier worst-in-Midwest claim Half True.

Our rating

Mary Burke contends that "Wisconsin’s dead last in Midwest job growth."

In the new version of this claim, she uses the most accurate jobs data for the longest Walker-era period that can be analyzed with it. And Wisconsin does bring up the rear. But due to the lag time, it does not reflect the most current trends.

We rate the claim True.


Deciphering jobs claims

Voters will hear many more jobs claims before the Nov. 4 election. Here are five tips for separating fact from fiction -- and hype from hard evidence -- when it comes to candidates and the numbers they use.

  1. Check the timeframe: If the statement covers a short period, it can be a red flag for cherry-picking data to find a good result. A longer time frame may be being used to mask more recent changes.

  2. Check the data source: The quarterly jobs numbers are more accurate than the monthly figures, but also more out of date. Be more skeptical of recent announcement about the monthly numbers, because they are subject to revisions can be significant.

  3. Raw numbers or percentages?: If the claim is that State X added more jobs than State Y, the statement may have limited information value. Look for percentage growth figures that level the playing field among states of varying sizes.

  4. Check the map: When the claim is "best in the region," trust but verify. Are all relevant states included?

  5. Scrutinize the sector: Most claims focus on just the private sector, but sometimes partisans will add in public employees if it suits their purpose.

Our Sources

Burke campaign, "Fairytale" ad, Youtube video, published July 18, 2014

Email with John Heywood, economics professor, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Aug. 27, 2014

BLS Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages data

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Mary Burke says Wisconsin ranks last in Midwest job growth

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