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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Fast-Food Fortune Teller

You don’t need a fortune teller to know that a business-backed group is twisting its cherry-picked facts in its latest ad attacking any increase in the federal minimum wage. Listen for the tip-off phrase: “up to.”

The ad popped up on Washington, D.C., stations April 29, just one day before a promised Senate vote on a Democratic proposal to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour in three steps by 2016. The ad is sponsored by the Employment Policies Institute, a Washington-based group with long-standing ties to the restaurant and fast-food industries and other businesses, and a long history of opposing increases in the minimum wage.

The ad features a fortune teller gazing into a crystal ball and telling an actor impersonating Barack Obama that “I see a lot of people losing their jobs” if the minimum wage is increased. When “Obama” looks into the ball and says, “I don’t see it in there,” the fortune teller drops her phony accent, grabs a copy of a Congressional Budget Office report and says: “It’s right here. … It predicts that up to a million jobs will be lost if you pass your wage hike.”

Weasel Words

That’s reasonably accurate — as far as it goes. But saying “up to” a million jobs is a classic use of the deceptive technique known as “weasel words,” meaning words that suck the meaning out of a phrase the way a weasel supposedly sucks the contents from an egg.

What the CBO actually said was that its “central estimate” is that 500,000 jobs would be lost. But the forecast is highly uncertain. The “likely range” is anywhere between a loss of a million jobs and a “very slight” job loss. So the ad’s fortune teller could just as accurately have said, “I see very few people losing their jobs,” based on CBO’s report. That’s just as likely as a million-job loss.

Even the CBO’s “central” estimate doesn’t mean that half a million “people” will lose jobs they have now, as the ad’s fortune teller puts it. Some of those lost jobs would be future employment that fails to materialize, not current jobs that disappear.

Furthermore, the change would take place gradually, between passage and the year 2016, when the $10.10 proposal would take full effect. The CBO’s estimate is of total employment in 2016 with a higher minimum wage, compared with what total employment would be under current law.


 The EPI ad’s fortune teller also fails to mention other findings in the CBO report she’s brandishing:

  • Families that are now in poverty would gain $5 billion in real income, moving about 900,000 people above the poverty threshold.
  • Average real (inflation-adjusted) income would increase for families in all income groups below six times the poverty level. (CBO projects the poverty level will be $24,100 for a family of four in 2016.)
  • On the other hand, for families that are at or above six times the poverty level in 2016 — which would be $144,600 or more for a family of four — real income would decrease by 0.4 percent, due mainly to higher prices and lower business profits.

So there are real economic trade-offs involved in raising the minimum wage. Some low-wage workers will probably lose jobs or future employment opportunities, and upper-income families will probably pay slightly higher prices and lose some business income. At the same time, average family incomes for others will probably increase.

But the EPI’s fortune teller is engaging in factual cherry-picking, or selective use of facts. She’s focusing only on CBO’s most pessimistic projection of possible job loss, while ignoring the CBO’s projected economic benefits for the poor and for most other families.

She could just as accurately have said: “I see billions in additional income for most families, and hundreds of thousands moved out of poverty.” Or she could have said: “I see high-income families losing 4 cents of every 10 dollars in real income.” But neither of those statements would advance the interests of those who want to kill the proposed minimum-wage increase.

Footnote: When the time for a vote arrived, Senate Republicans managed to block the $10.10 minimum wage proposal with a filibuster. A majority of 54 senators favored proceeding to final consideration of the measure, but on a mostly party-line vote, 42 opposed. So Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed to proceed.

— Brooks Jackson