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Lies, Damned Lies, and Reporting on Federal Pay

Pratap Chatterjee calls out several national newspapers for continually misinterpreting statistics about federal pay levels compared to the private sector.

<i>The New York Times</i> and <i>The Philadelphia Inquirer</i> both repeated this week the statistical lie that federal workers are overpaid. (AP/Mark Lennihan)
The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer both repeated this week the statistical lie that federal workers are overpaid. (AP/Mark Lennihan)

Mark Twain said there were three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. In reporting this week on President Barack Obama’s proposed federal workforce pay freeze, The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer both repeated the statistical lie that federal workers are overpaid.

“In 2009, federal civil servants earned average pay and benefits of $123,049. Employees in the private sector made $61,051 in total compensation,” the Inky’s editorial board said, referring to a misleading USA Today article that we called out in October. The Times likewise gave voice to a CATO Institute report that “found that federal civilian workers had an average annual wage of $81,258 in 2009, compared with $50,464 for the nation’s private-sector workers.”

Again, for the hearing impaired: The data is bad, and the studies are wrong. For the straight dope read today’s Progress Report analysis and Lauren Smith’s “Correcting Myths About Federal Pay: Conservatives Compare Apples to Oranges.”

Pratap Chatterjee is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for American Progress who is focused on federal procurement reform.

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