Were Those State of the Union Responses True?

Joni Ernst delivered the official Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday, January 20. Reuters/Joshua Roberts

President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday night contained many claims and sparked many responses.

Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, best known by her campaign ad about castrating pigs of her family's farm, delivered the official Republican response. Fellow senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky also delivered responses on YouTube.

So, who was right, and who was wrong? It's still the economy, stupid, so we took a closer look at the various claims made Tuesday night.

Wages: Ernst and Cruz claimed wages have stagnated under President Obama. That's true: Inflation-adjusted median incomes have actually dipped in the past decade, from $786.67 in Q1 2004 to $784.13 in Q1 2014. However, as you can see in the following graph from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the drop in wages we are seeing now is somewhat cyclical, and wages have been steadily climbing for 35 years, regardless of who was in the White House at the time.

Inflation-adjusted median income from 1983 to 2014. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Jobs: Ernst lamented that Americans had lost jobs under Obama. But despite the Great Recession, employers are actually adding jobs now. The economy gained 148,037 jobs in December, the most of any month since 1999. Still, Obama's claim that the job market is growing at its fastest pace since 1999 is hyped. In December, the number of new jobs was 0.2 percent of the total number of jobs—which means the job market isn't growing at quite as fast a clip as it was in October 1999, when new jobs were 0.3 percent of all jobs, or in March 2000, when new jobs were 0.4 percent of all jobs. But the job market is certainly expanding, which makes Ernst's claim ring hollow.

Keystone: Ernst claimed that building the proposed Keystone Pipeline, which will ferry tar oil from Montana to the Gulf of Mexico, would create "thousands of jobs and pump billions into our economy." The first point is somewhat contentious: While the actual building of the pipeline would indeed require around 3,500 workers, once it's built, it will require only 35 workers to keep it running—so those thousands of jobs Ernst mentioned come with an expiration date of one year, the time expected to build the pipeline.

Income Inequality: In his response, Paul said income inequality has worsened under Obama. That's true. But it's also true of every president since the Great Depression, according to the Pew Research Center. The gap between rich and poor began to increase dramatically in the mid-to-late 1970s, the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter years.

Unemployment: "Today we've got the lowest labor force participation since 1978; 92 million Americans aren't working today," said Cruz in his ad-hoc response. That's true. Labor force participation—the number of Americans who are actively working or looking for work—was 62.7 percent in December 2014. Labor force participation peaked at 67.3 percent in the first quarter of 2000 and has declined steadily since then. Here is a graph that shows the rise and fall in labor force participation since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data for the statistic in 1948.

Labor force participation from 1948 to 2014. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Paul also attacked the so-called War on Poverty, claiming that black unemployment remains twice that of white unemployment since the program began 50 years ago. That is true, and has been since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting employment data by race, according to the Pew Research Center. But it's also true that entitlement and tax benefits that aid the middle class, such as Social Security or the home mortgage deduction, dwarf the War on Poverty, means-tested programs aimed directly at the poor.

Debt: This is a leading talking point for conservatives, but of all the responses to the State of the Union, only Paul gave it more than a passing mention. The Kentucky senator claimed, "Obama is on course to add more national debt than all our previous presidents combined" That's sort of true, depending on how you measure debt. According to PolitiFact, a government watchdog organization, the national debt is set to double in terms of raw dollars during Obama's presidency—but that number is somewhat misleading, because it isn't adjusted for inflation. It's not surprising, in other words, that the government will rack up more debt during Obama's presidency than it did fighting World War II, because things just cost more these days. But, under Obama, debt is not expected to double as a percentage of GDP—the ratio of debt to revenues, which many economists find to be a more useful metric for measuring debt. Statistics from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office show that, from 2009 to 2013, the ratio of debt to GDP increased by 18.5 percentage points. That's slightly less than the 20.7 percent it increased under President George W. Bush, and much less than it increased under President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II.

So all said, the top Republican responses weren't wildly off the mark but they didn't hit it either.