Washington Post Reporter Fails Her Own “Pinocchio Test”

This article was last updated on May 25, 2022

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Presidential candidate Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) recently cited a study published by CIS in June while discussing jobs and immigration. Michelle Ye Hee Lee did a “fact check” of his comments for the Washington Post and gave him three out of four Pinocchios. Her article seems designed to nitpick what Santorum said rather than to judge its truthfulness. According to Lee, Santorum stated the following at the Iowa Freedom Summit: “There are fewer Americans working today who were born in this country than there were in the year 2000.” Lee’s main point is that Santorum is drawing from our study and that his statement only relates to the 16- to 65-year-old population. (Those over 65 have made some gains, as we reported in our study.) So one can assume that Lee would have had no problem with Santorum’s statement if he had just inserted “working age” right before the word “Americans”. Or perhaps if he had just added “ages 16 to 65” right after “Americans”.

Lee does not dispute the numbers in our study. She states: “The figures match up with monthly BLS breakdowns available online.” But one of her key issues is that the numbers Santorum cites, “[do] not include the growing number of Americans working beyond age 65.” This is her main problem with Santorum’s statement.

She thinks Santorum is untruthful even though 97 percent of all workers were drawn from the working-age (16 to 65) population in 2000, as were 95 percent in 2014. And even though she cites our figure that the native working-age population grew by about 17 million, the fact that the number working did not grow does not seem to matter to her. Natives accounted for 66 percent of population growth among the working-age, but none of the employment growth. But Lee ignores this and only focuses on employment gains for people above age 65.

Let’s look at that group. First, the numbers in Table 1 of our study can be used to calculate net employment growth when those over 65 are included. As already discussed, even in 2014, 95 percent of all workers were under age 65. Second, if you include workers over 65 it is still the case that 71 percent of net employment gains went to immigrants and 29 percent to natives. Yet natives accounted for 69 percent of population growth among the 16-plus population. But Lee still argues that when she considers all those over 16 it is a “far different picture than Santorum paints.” Really? Those over 65 are much less likely to have families to support and those over 65 are often working not because they want to, but because their retirement plans have taken such a hit.

It’s worth noting that in a more recent study focused on the period from November 2007 to November 2014, we used only published data from the BLS website. We looked at all employment, even the small share of workers over 65. We found that, since 2007, all net employment growth has gone to immigrants. There were 1.5 million fewer natives 16-plus working in November 2014 than were working in November 2007, but the number of immigrants 16-plus working was up two million. So looking at the 16-plus population based entirely on the tables on the BLS website, net employment was up about half a million since 2007, but all growth went to immigrants.

Lee and I spoke at length before she wrote her article. I found her professional and curious. We discussed at length the fact that in the last 14 years the native employment rate (share working) and labor force participation rate (share working or looking for work) show much greater deterioration for natives than for immigrants. I explained that the whole reason to look at 16- to 65-year-olds is so that we can calculate employment and labor force participation because people over 65 generally do not work. (See the figures below from our study.) Yet she still claims Santorum was being untruthful despite knowing full well that over the last 14 years immigrants have done better than natives during the recession and recovery. Also, she is aware that even since 2010 the immigrant employment rate improved more than twice as fast as that of natives — 2.4 percentage points vs. 0.9 percentage points, respectively.

The second key criticism that she levels at Santorum in the “The Pinocchio Test” section of her article is that he connects the above job trends “entirely to illegal immigration” and this is an “exaggeration”. But, again, Santorum did not say, at least in the quotation she provides, that immigration or illegal immigration is the only problem American workers face. He just says the massive increase in Americans not working is a reason to do more about illegal immigration. In my view this is akin to someone concerned about declining wages calling for an increase in the minimum wage even though they know that the failure to increase the minimum wage is not the only problem workers face and that raising it would not solve every problem. Lee is free to disagree with Santorum’s comments, but they are not unreasonable and they are certainly not categorical or untruthful in the way she implies.

One final point: When discussing the issue of job competition, Lee quotes only Harry Holzer, a professor with strongly partisan views on this issue. She did not speak to any academics with different points of view. Why? It seems finding fault with Santorum was her only goal and Holzer’s only job was to confirm her pre-existing opinion.


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