Forget about whether you’re liberal or conservative, pro-union or anti. A simple question: in either the public or the private sector, would you not expect a college grad who has worked his or her job for 4 years to be paid significantly more than someone with a high school diploma who’s had his or her gig for 2 years?

And if the college grad were in fact paid more, would that be unfair somehow? Would it be cause for jealousy and resentment? Apparently, USA Today thinks so.

The tabloid lies with statistics through the first 7 paragraphs of this 8-paragraph “analysis.” Here’s the lede:

Wisconsin is one of 41 states where public employees earn higher average pay and benefits than private workers in the same state, a USA TODAY analysis finds. Still, the compensation of Wisconsin’s government workers ranks below the national average for public employees and has increased only slightly since 2000.

Graphs 3 and 4:

The analysis of government data found that public employee compensation has grown faster than the earnings of private workers since 2000. Primary cause: the rising value of benefits.

They could have mentioned that 37 percent of public workers belong to a union, versus 7 percent in the private sector, but that’s just a quibble.

Wisconsin is typical. State, city and school district workers earned an average of $50,774 in wages and benefits in 2009, about $1,800 more than in the private sector. The state ranked 33rd in public employee compensation among the states and Washington, D.C. It had ranked 20th in 2000.

And very careful readers only get a dose of reality — a limited one — in the final graph:

Economist Jeffrey Keefe of the liberal Economic Policy Institute says the analysis is misleading because it doesn’t reflect factors such as education that result in higher pay for public employees.

That’s right, their analysis just compared average wages, and didn’t adjust for different job requirements, age, education or experience. It’s not misleading, it’s entirely meaningless. Unless, of course, you think that high school grad with less experience should be paid the same.

As I wrote last year, Public sector workers have, on average, more experience and higher levels of education than their counterparts in the private sector (they are twice as likely to have a college degree). Economist John Schmitt found that when one controls for those factors — comparing apples to apples –state and local employees earn almost 4 percent less than their brethren in corporate America. (Even accounting for their greater benefits, state and local employees still make less in total compensation than they would doing the same work in the private sector.)

The thing that I find so egregious about this is that the reporter, Dennis Cauchon, spoke with an economist who told him this, but didn’t include any of the numbers I cite above. This is how people are being mislead to believe that public workers are the new welfare queens.

Here’s an email for corrections and clarifications:, and here’s an editorial feedback form. If you’re sick of this kind of distortion passing itself off as unbiased journalism, let ‘em know.

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About the Author

Joshua Holland

I write for AlterNet. I've written a book, The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy, which I recommend. You might also consider following me on Twitter.

7 Responses to USA Today Lies with Statistics; Falsely Claims Public Employee Pay Is Higher Than in Private Sector

  1. Jeff Bryant says:

    “This is how people are being misled to believe that public workers are the new welfare queens.”

    Yep! I heard Mitch Daniels make the very same argument on the Diane Rehm [sp?] NPR show the other day and she never countered him on that. Why?

  2. Joshua Holland says:

    It’s a mystery.

  3. Dwight says:

    Well, it’s a ‘mystery’ AND unconscionable. I mean journalists and reporters are supposed to be skilled at seeing through bogus arguments and distilling the essence – no?

    Chris Mathews was killing me tonight in his discussion of the so-called Social Security crisis – accepting the premise without so much as a ‘First of all – is there actually a crisis?’.


  4. Travis D. says:

    Great piece, my only minor quibble being this sentence:

    And if the college grad were in fact paid more, would that be unfair somehow?

    I get the context, but it seems to imply that a college educated employee is somehow more deserving of a higher wage than someone who did not (or could not) attain a degree. Only 29 percent of adults in America have a Bacehlor’s degree- do the rest of us simply eat cake?

    • Joshua Holland says:

      I don’t disagree. I’m just making the point that most people tend to take what’s being portrayed as a public-private wage gap for granted every day in the private sector.

  5. Mark says:

    Of course, Travis! In fact, it isn’t even the difference between a degree and no degree. Everyone deserves to earn exponentially based on how much they paid for college. So someone from Harvard, for example, should earn significantly more than someone from a public school. That’s the American way.

    Now, some think college grads should earn more because of what they learned. The degree only proves they learned valuable skills, but it is the skills that leads to the better earnings. Pfff! Yeah, right.

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