When I moved to Oklahoma, I got a raise simply because things cost less here than in the Seattle area where I grew up. Housing, especially, is cheaper in Oklahoma City than in anywhere else I’ve lived. According to RentCafe.com, average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Seattle is $2,254; in Oklahoma City it’s $790.
So it only seems fair to me to evaluate state-by-state rankings using some calculation that factors in such diversity. It does not, however, seem fair to PolitiFact. Actually, PolitiFact is fine with considering cost-of-living differences in California or New York, just not in Oklahoma.
This is a common trick of those who want government to get bigger: ignore the cost of living in low-cost, mostly red states, but emphasize the cost of living in higher-cost, blue states. This makes it easier to argue for higher taxes and more spending in both places.
Along with several other states, Oklahoma is embroiled in a controversy over education funding and teacher pay. In a debate like this, people want to know: Where does my state rank compared to other states?
Considering the raw numbers, Oklahoma was near the bottom (last week our governor signed legislation to raise taxes and increase teacher pay, on average, $6,100 per year). In March, PolitiFact rated the claim that Oklahoma teachers “are the poorest paid” in the country as “mostly true.” In a subsequent meeting, I chided PolitiFact’s Jon Greenberg for leaving out any mention of cost-of-living differences in that analysis.
Last week, Greenberg doubled down in response to an article where I cite three analyses showing Oklahoma teacher pay ranked in the low- or mid-30s once cost of living was factored in. Similar number crunching shows Oklahoma teachers will be around thirteenth in the nation in earnings, after the raise kicks in. Yet Greenberg opines that “labor and education economists say it’s not that simple [to adjust for cost of living],” and declares that “people who study education labor markets raise big issues with using cost of living adjustments this way.”
He goes on to cite one economist who opposes considering any state averages on teacher pay “because average salaries reflect not only differences in the wage level, but also differences in the mix of teacher credentials.” Of course, this is true for any job with different levels of possible credentials. He goes on to cite a single academic paper whose author claims to have “debunk[ed] all” claims that cost-of-living matters when looking at Oklahoma teacher pay.
It turns out another PolitiFact writer recently addressed cost-of-living adjustments, and his conclusions are just the opposite. So much for fact checking.
Writing about poverty and the size of the Golden State’s economy, PolitiFact’s Chris Nichols emphasizes the importance of how expensive it is to live there. PolitiFact rates as “True” a state assemblyman’s claim that “California had the country’s worst poverty rate, after factoring in cost-of-living expenses.” The explanation: “Experts said the distinction [cost-of-living differences] was important, because factors such as California’s huge housing costs affect the poverty rate.”
On the other hand, Nichols rates another claim as “Mostly True” because of the speaker’s “silence on cost-of-living,” saying the issue “is significant” when comparing countries. (Both the “fact checks” were actually done earlier, but reposted in the recent article linked above and quoted from here.)
Another PolitiFact article rates as “False” a claim about how much “middle class” people earn in Manhattan, but only after using the CNNMoney.com cost-of-living calculator. Apparently, adjusting for cost of living is just fine if for costal blue states, but not for low-cost states in the heartland.
None of this is surprising. Mark Hemingway at The Weekly Standard has written about “Lies, Damned Lies, and Fact Checking,” showing how PolitiFact twists and turns to declare true statements “False.” More recently, he reported on a study showing that fact checkers fail to agree with each other (“Study Shows Fact-Checkers Are Bad at Their Jobs”). Mollie Hemingway has been even more direct, declaring “PolitiFact Is A Joke.”
Some of the best things about a place like Oklahoma is that the burden of government is lighter and life somewhat less expensive. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that PolitiFact doesn’t understand this, or just doesn’t care. But for its work on cost-of-living adjustments, PolitiFact has surely earned the rating “FALSE.”