Post Sells Trump Short on Housing, Economic Stats

Post Sells Trump Short on Housing, Economic Stats
AP Photo/John Minchillo
Post Sells Trump Short on Housing, Economic Stats
AP Photo/John Minchillo
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A recent piece by fact checker Meg Kelly of the Washington Post concludes that “the president is often eager to prove his economic might. But he should be more careful when promoting success.” This is doubtless true of not only President Trump, but most politicians. The Post and other fact-checking outfits have done yeoman’s duty in proving the old adage that “politicians and diapers should be changed frequently, and for the same reason.”

But it is questionable whether Trump was as full of it as the Post would have us believe when he made the claims examined in the article in question, “What Trump has not done for African Americans and Hispanics.” The piece checked up on six boasts made by the president concerning the economic position of African-Americans and Hispanics. As is typical of politicians, Trump regularly seeks to take credit for economic improvements enjoyed by these and other groups.

Kelly noted that “regular readers of The Fact Checker know we tend to award Two Pinocchios to anyone who gives sole credit to a president for the state of the economy. That’s because the U.S. economy is complex, and the decisions of companies and consumers often loom larger than the acts of government officials.”

Readers may or may not agree with this summation of the president’s role, but it’s certainly a truism that presidents get too much credit when the economy is good, just as they accrue too much blame during tough patches. The Post’s explanation of its rating system says that the “Two Pinocchios” rating is garnered for claims that include “significant omissions and/or exaggerations.” Factual error may or may not be involved in claims given such ratings, but often it comes down to a politician creating a false or misleading impression by “playing with words.” The Post also notes that this rating is similar to “half true.”

But Kelly went on to write that Trump’s claims merited closer scrutiny because they were “more specific” — he argued that his policies have had “an outsize impact for African American and Hispanic communities compared with the country overall.”

In brief, the six claims examined within the article are that African-American poverty has reached its lowest rate ever; Hispanic poverty in the U.S. is at an all-time low; Latino home ownership has hit its highest rate in more than a decade; home ownership is also up for African-Americans and has improved beyond the rates under Democratic administrations; the median income for African-Americans is the highest it has ever been; and, likewise, that Hispanic median income is at an all-time high.

These claims were made by Trump during various rally speeches and interviews in September and October. As a group, Kelly awarded them a rating of “Three Pinocchios.” The Post describes such a rating as indicating “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions,” adding that “it could include statements which are technically correct (such as based on official government data) but are so taken out of context as to be very misleading.” The caveat is offered that “[t]he line between Two and Three can be bit fuzzy and we do not award half-Pinocchios. So we strive to explain the factors that tipped us toward a Three.”

This must have been one of those borderline cases. Kelly wrote that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the official poverty rate for Hispanics and African-Americans has reached an all-time low. But she noted that scholars do not have faith in the reliability of this government metric so she cited a different metric, the Supplemental Poverty Measure or SPM, which is also used by the Census Bureau. (This measure also has critics, according to Kelly.) Under the SPM, African-Americans are doing well, but hit their lowest poverty mark in 2016 with a slight uptick in 2017. Hispanic-Americans did hit their lowest-ever rate in 2017. In other words, one of these two claims made by Trump is simply true by both metrics, and the other is true by one and pretty close to the truth by the other.

With regards to claims about African-American and Hispanic homeownership, those rates peaked in the mid-2000s, just as did the overall rate. Trump’s brag that the Hispanic rate is the highest in a decade is right, but his claim that African-Americans are doing better under his administration is premature. The rates are improving for both groups, although an expert interviewed by the Post attributed this to factors outside the president’s control.

As to median income, Trump is correct that Hispanics are at an all-time high, while African-American median income is still about $2,000 short of its high in the year 2000. So on balance, Trump is spot on with his claims about Hispanics, but reaching a bit on African-Americans. This is a far cry from the “Three Pinocchios” verdict, which suggests almost complete falsity or dishonesty on Trump’s part. By the Post’s own standards, Trump probably deserved a “Two Pinocchio” rating -- at worst. But even that is up for debate because as Trump’s remarks are presented by the Post, they are not efforts to claim sole credit — the Post’s standard for an automatic “Two Pinocchio” rating — but statements of fact. That the size of Trump’s role in those facts is ripe for discussion does not change their veracity.

It is also worth pointing out that while Trump’s claims about African-Americans were pulled from three different appearances, his claims about Hispanics were all drawn from the same October 22 rally in Houston. If Trump’s statements about Hispanics from that speech alone had been examined, instead of grouping them with statements made at other times about African-Americans, he arguably would have deserved no Pinocchios at all. It is almost as if the Post is saying, “Trump is right about rising Hispanic wealth and home ownership, but here’s three Pinocchios anyway.”

Bill Zeiser is editor of RealClearPolitics Fact Check Review.

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