Conservative media are claiming that unemployed Americans are "lazy" because they supposedly spend too much time "shopping" and not enough time working or looking for work. But the data they cite includes the activities of stay-at-home parents, students, people with disabilities, and retirees who are "not employed."
On September 8, fringe conservative website CNS News published an article claiming "an unemployed American is more likely to be shopping ... than to be looking for a new job. " The article ostensibly cited data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), an annual survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). CNS claimed that "only 18.9 percent of Americans who were unemployed" engaged in job searches or job interviews on "an average day." Meanwhile, according to CNS, 22.5 percent of the "unemployed" engaged in shopping "for items other than groceries" on "an average day."
Unfortunately, CNS did not link to its internal data or provide methodology for its reporting, leaving readers to take the website's claims at face value.
Digging into the technical notes of the ATUS reveals that the BLS does not categorize individuals as "unemployed," but rather as "not employed." This distinction is important, as it includes individuals who fit the classification of being unemployed -- not working but actively looking for work -- as well as individuals who are "not in the labor force" for other reasons, including retirement, educational pursuit, and disability. So-called "discouraged workers," the small percentage of the population who involuntarily leave the labor force due to a lack of opportunity, would also count as "not employed" by ATUS classification.
CNS' insinuation that the so-called "unemployed" spend too much time engaged in non-work activities like "shopping" is based on a fatally skewed statistical error. But that fact has not stopped right-wing media outlets from using CNS' assumptions to fuel their campaign against the unemployed.
Fox News turned to misleading statistics and sensational rhetoric in a renewed attack on government anti-poverty relief programs, federal workers, and public pensions.
On the August 21 edition of Fox News' Happening Now, co-host Jon Scott invited Fox Business contributor Charles Gasparino to discuss concerns regarding the scope and sustainability of government benefit programs. The two falsely portrayed government employment as a "growth industry" and made a confusing comparison between the total number of Americans receiving so-called "welfare" and the population of Russia. Gasparino lamented that more "stigma" is not attached to receiving federal aid or "living in a housing project," before falsely concluding that public pensions face a "huge looming crisis" and are, in essence, "Ponzi schemes":
GASPARINO: I don't think Americans are against handing people a check if they really need it, if they're starving, if they need welfare, if they need a helping hand. But we have a cultural situation in this country where it is more than that, where it is almost acceptable. The stigma is gone about accepting that check.
GASPARINO: We've become the old Soviet Union! If you threw in the state numbers, it would even be bigger. The pension issue that I brought up is one of the huge looming crisis out there. It's essentially a Ponzi scheme.
Scott's initial claim that "nearly 110 million Americans live in households on welfare," is misleading. According to the United States Census Bureau, in the fourth quarter of 2012 roughly 109.6 million Americans resided in a household receiving "one or more means-tested programs." These include housing assistance, disability and survivor benefits, numerous nutritional assistance programs, Medicaid, and forms of "cash assistance." Only 5.4 million individuals lived in homes receiving from the benefit program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), commonly referred to as "welfare."
The portrayal of government employment as a "growth industry" is also false. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, total government employment across local, state, and federal agencies has declined significantly during the Obama administration and over the past seven years. Total government employment was roughly 22.6 million when President Obama took office in 2009, declining to 21.9 million today:
Gasparino's final claim that public employee pensions are "a Ponzi scheme," is incorrect. A February 2011 report by economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) demonstrated that most of the long-term funding shortfall in public pensions is a result of the 2007-2009 economic crisis and the accompanying stock market downturn. Baker concluded that the debate on pensions had been "seriously misrepresented" and that most public pensions appeared "easily manageable" over the long term.
Fox News and Gasparino have a long history of misappropriating terms like "welfare" and relying on sensational comparisons of pensions to "Ponzi schemes," in addition to unsubstantiated correlations between the number of recipients of a government program with completely unrelated population statistics.
Heritage Foundation chief economist Stephen Moore grossly exaggerated the cost of providing unaccompanied minors access to American public education to stoke fears that the costs might hurt local communities.
On the August 7 edition of Fox News' Your World, host Neil Cavuto invited conservative economist Stephen Moore to discuss the purportedly high cost of allowing roughly 50,000 unaccompanied minors access to public schools around the country. Citing his own calculations, Moore claimed that the cost of educating these immigrant children could reach $1 billion annually, adding that "it's unfair to put these costs on the backs of local residents ":
Moore's calculation is problematic for a number of reasons.
According to research from the Heritage Foundation, Moore's current employer, the cost of educating a single undocumented immigrant child is roughly $12,300 per year. Therefore, the cost of educating the roughly 50,000 recent undocumented minors in the U.S. would actually be roughly $615 million per year, according to Heritage's estimates.
Furthermore, Moore's fear mongering over the purported $1 billion price tag ignores the size and scope of the American economy. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the current dollar value of the American economy in the second quarter of 2014 was $17.3 trillion. In other words, the cost to educate these children would be less than 0.006 percent of the value of the economy as a whole. Hardly cause for alarm.
Moore's sloppy calculations have gotten him into trouble in the past, as he employs a façade of "economics" to disguise his conservative political agenda.
Heritage Foundation chief economist Stephen Moore was caught using incorrect statistics to mislead readers about the relationship between tax cuts and job creation in the United States.
On July 7, Moore published an op-ed in The Kansas City Star attacking economic policies favored by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman. The op-ed claimed that "places such as New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and California ... are getting clobbered by tax-cutting states." Moore went on to attack liberals for "cherry-picking a few events" in their arguments against major tax cuts, when in fact it was Moore who cited bad data to support his claims.
On July 24, The Kansas City Star published a correction to Moore's op-ed, specifically stating that the author had "misstated job growth rates for four states and the time period covered." The editorial board of the Star inserted this annotation to Moore's inaccurate claims:
Please see editor's note at the top of this column. No-income-tax Texas gained 1 million jobs over the last five years, California, with its 13 percent tax rate, managed to lose jobs. Oops. Florida gained hundreds of thousands of jobs while New York lost jobs. NOTE: These figures are incorrect. The time period covered was December 2007 to December 2012. Over that time, Texas gained 497,400 jobs, California lost 491,200, Florida lost 461,500 and New York gained 75,900. Oops. Illinois raised taxes more than any other state over the last five years and its credit rating is the second lowest of all the states, below that of Kansas! (emphasis original)
On July 25, Star columnist Yael Abouhalkah explained the correction in more detail. Abouhalkah wrote that Moore had "used outdated and inaccurate job growth information at a key point in his article" and that Moore should have used data from 2009 to 2014, rather than from 2007 to 2012. Abouhalkah also argued that "the problems with Moore's opinion article damaged his credibility on the jobs issue."
Moore's credibility on "the jobs issue" is not the only troubling aspect of his economic punditry. Moore was recently brought on as the chief economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation after serving for many years on the right-wing editorial board of The Wall Street Journal and as a go-to economic commentator on Fox News. Moore has a history of disparaging reasonable economic policies in favor of fiscally irresponsible tax cuts for the wealthy and painful spending cuts to vital programs.
Moore has referred to unemployment insurance as a "paid vacation" for jobless Americans and bizarrely claimed that laws guaranteeing paid sick leave for full-time workers were "very dangerous for cities." Moore spent years basely claiming that the Affordable Care Act would reduce job creation, seamlessly transitioning from one debunked talking point to the next along the way. He is also an outspoken opponent of increasing the minimum wage, claiming that even a moderate rise in wages would result in a "big increase" in unemployment. In a recent foray out of the safety of right-wing media, Moore's anti-living wage spin was easily cut down by CNN anchor Carol Costello.
The original intent of Moore's Star op-ed was to garner support for tax cuts enacted over the past two years by Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS), which The New York Times and other outlets have labeled "ruinous." The tax cuts have been such a dramatic failure that more than 100 members of the Kansas Republican Party have sworn to help replace Brownback with a Democrat willing to reinstate taxes and spending at their previous levels.
Fox News misleadingly attacked the federal food stamp program for being wasteful and unaccountable despite reports that the program achieved the lowest payment error rate in its history in the most recently available data.
Fox New complained about the findings of a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on quality control in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps. The USDA report clearly states that the 2012 fiscal year was "another year of excellent performance in payment accuracy" before noting that the most recent payment error rate of 3.42 percent was once again "the lowest National payment error rate in the history of SNAP."
On the July 24 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade cast the findings in a negative light, stressing that "the government is overpaying on food stamps by about $2 billion." Co-host Steve Doocy then questioned whether the Obama administration could "be trusted with more money," given the overpayments. Fox Business anchor Stuart Varney went on to chastise the Department of Agriculture for labeling the food-stamp payment error rate of 3.42 percent "excellent," wondering aloud "since when has that been good?"
Fox News' mischaracterization of the SNAP report continued throughout the day. On Happening Now, co-host Jenna Lee called the USDA report "startling" and said that "the administration is having a tough time managing its funds." On The Real Story, host Gretchen Carlson claimed that federal spending on nutrition assistance was "reaching a breaking point" before highlighting the growth of participation in the food stamp program since 2007.
Far from indicating a managerial flaw in the Obama administration, the 2012 payment error rate in SNAP is evidence of success in rooting out improper payments. According to the report being derided on Fox News, the national payment error rate in SNAP during President Obama's first year in office was 4.36 percent. That error rate then fell to 3.81, 3.80, and 3.42 percent in fiscal years 2010-2012, respectively.
In the second quarter of 2014, women comprised just over one-third of weekday cable news guests invited to discuss issues relating to the American economy. The disparity between men and women still marks an improvement over previously measured trends in gender diversity among cable news outlets.
Weekday broadcast and cable evening news coverage of the economy during the past three months focused heavily on policies aimed at spurring job creation and economic growth despite the general lack of input from actual economists. A Media Matters analysis reveals that several topics -- taxes, spending cuts, deficit reduction, economic inequality, minimum wage -- have become highly polarized among major networks.
Fox News hosts read directly from Walmart's official corporate script to defend the company against a critical New York Times op-ed that indicated the retailer's role in perpetuating the need for government assistance programs.
On June 19, The New York Times published an op-ed calling Walmart "a big part of the problem" of rising economic inequality in the United States. Citing data from multiple sources, opinion columnist Timothy Egan noted that the average "associate" at Walmart makes between $8.81 and $11 per hour, frequently relying on government anti-poverty relief to fill income gaps. Egan noted that Walmart claims its average employee makes "at least $12 per hour," but that "these numbers are skewed by higher pay for management." Egan cited a recent exposé by Fortune senior editor Stephen Gandel detailing how the company could easily give a 50 percent raise to more than one million employees without hurting its stock value or profitability:
No matter the exact figure, there's no dispute that Walmart's business model forces thousands of hard-working people to look for outside help just to get by.
And under that model, Walmart has made a fortune -- $17 billion in profits last year, executive compensation for one man at the top in excess of $20 million a year, and a windfall making the six heirs of the founding Walton family worth at least $150 billion.
Walmart could make life easier for its 1.4 million workers, without diminishing its stock value. Writing in Fortune.com, Stephen Gandel concluded that Walmart could give workers a 50 percent raise without hurting shareholder value.
On the June 23 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy and Fox Business anchor Stuart Varney dedicated a segment to supposedly fact-checking the Times, pulling pushback directly from Walmart's officially sanctioned corporate response.
Varney called the Times op-ed "utter nonsense," and an attempt to "demonize Walmart." Ignoring that Egan acknowledged the dispute over Walmart's average hourly wage in the op-ed, Varney stated that the author "got it wrong" as he recited Walmart's more palatable average wage claim. Doocy and Varney uncritically agreed that the data supplied by Walmart was "all true" before pivoting to place blame for economic inequality at the feet of the Obama administration:
Despite Fox's unabashed foray into corporate public relations, Timothy Egan's statement holds true: "No matter the exact figure, there's no dispute that Walmart's business model forces thousands of hard-working people to look for outside help just to get by."
Fox News exploited the violent turmoil in Iraq to baselessly lay blame for increasing gasoline and oil prices at the feet of President Obama. Fox hosts cited Obama's alleged "policy mistakes" in Iraq as the impetus for the rising cost of petroleum products, continuing a long pattern of attacking Obama over the price of gasoline while ignoring the fact that global market trends are largely out of the president's control.
On the June 13 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade and Fox Business anchor Stuart Varney discussed the impact of the recent turmoil in Iraq on the global oil market. Varney used the opportunity to attack President Obama for the withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq from 2009 through 2011:
VARNEY: Let me make this very clear, we are all paying for the president's policy mistakes. The retreat in Iraq, the chaos in Iraq, will be paid for by us at the pump.
The withdrawal of American troops from Iraq was completed on December 18, 2011. According to data from the United States Energy Information Agency (EIA), the market prices of crude oil and refined gasoline have fluctuated since that time, but the withdrawal itself spurred no appreciable price corrections. Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, overlaying the prices for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil with inflation adjusted prices for gasoline, confirm that the withdrawal had no lasting impact on market prices:
Reputable market analysts agree that the outbreak of violence in Iraq -- the world's eighth largest oil producer -- is driving market speculation and investment in petroleum futures. This in turn has resulted in a slight, but noticeable increase in global crude oil market prices during the past several days. Varney is correct in noting that instability in Iraq is impacting global oil prices, but his analysis veered into well-worn Fox News paranoia when he used that fact to pin the blame for rising prices on President Obama.
Fox has a storied history of blaming this president for rising oil and gasoline prices.
A Wall Street Journal editorial dismissed the student loan relief plan outlined by President Obama as a distraction from the so-called Bowe Bergdahl "scandal," even though conservative media had previously declared Bergdahl's release a distraction from other alleged "scandals."
In a June 9 editorial, the Journal's editorial board attacked Obama's plan to extend income-contingent loan repayment options to all recipients of federal student loans. The Journal chided Obama's decision to extend through executive action reduced payment options to 5 million previously unqualified borrowers who had taken out loans before October 2007. The Journal also invoked myths that college loans are driving up attendance costs and represent taxpayer handouts to college graduates.
The Journal concluded its anti-loan relief tirade by claiming that the president's announcement, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) proposal to lower student loan interest rates, amount to little more than "attempts to change the subject" from alleged "scandals" and "government failures." From the editorial:
The Warren bill has no chance to pass the House, as Democrats know. The Warren bill and the Obama debt-forgiveness-by-fiat are attempts to change the subject from the cascading examples of government failure -- the VA scandal (see nearby), the Taliban prisoner swap, the rising cost of health insurance under ObamaCare. In the Obama era, government failure is never a failure. It's another political opportunity to call for more of the same.
The Journal's claim that proposals to relieve millions of student loan borrowers buried under more than $1 trillion in outstanding debt are a distraction from "the Taliban prisoner swap" is just the latest in a series of right-wing media outlets obsessing over the notion that each policy proposal or news development from the White House is a "distraction" from something else:
The Journal's decision to force the "distraction" talking point into the student loan debate proves that no news item is safe from being uncritically dismissed by right-wing media outlets bent on turning every issue into a political scandal.