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PolitiFact FL: Rubio says Biden is being ‘very misleading’ about inflation. Arguably, he is, too

Marco Rubio speaks with reporters as he walks.
Alex Brandon
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks with reporters as he walks to a vote on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023 in Washington.

WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.

With Americans telling pollsters that they’re weary of inflation, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., accused President Joe Biden of misleading voters about how much rising prices have eased.

"It's very misleading when (Biden) says (inflation) used to be at 9%," Rubio told Fox News’ Harris Faulkner April 11. "This is compounding. It’s not like it went down from 9% to 3%. This is building month after month. The better way to think about it is that it’s 18%, 19% over the last three years."

Inflation has improved significantly on Biden’s watch. In summer 2022, inflation peaked at about 9% compared with one year earlier. But since June 2023, year-over-year inflation has run between 3% and 3.7%. That’s a marked improvement, even though it’s not quite down to the 2% level the Federal Reserve Board wants to see before it lowers interest rates.

Rubio has a point that inflation accumulates, and that the increase over the past three years has been around 19%.

However, Rubio is misleading by failing to note another key factor: rising wages. Prices don’t increase in a vacuum; they can be canceled out, or nearly so, by rising wages.

"Measuring changes in well-being requires bringing in wages — the capacity to pay these higher prices," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the center-right American Action Forum.

Although it may not be obvious to consumers frustrated with rising grocery prices, wages are outpacing inflation when compared with the prepandemic level.

Rubio’s office did not answer an inquiry for this fact-check.

What the data shows

We looked at how two standard federal statistics have evolved in recent years: The consumer price index, a monthly price inflation gauge for a fixed basket of goods, and average hourly earnings for all private employees, a monthly measurement of how worker pay changes.

Although Rubio’s has accurately assessed inflation’s compounding, these measurements are highly sensitive to different time frames. So, it’s easy for politicians to cherry-pick time periods that suit their arguments.

"Sen. Rubio can define inflation over any time span he wishes," said Gary Burtless, an economist with the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "But what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. President Biden is also free … to measure inflation over any time span he wishes."

Wages have risen 15.9% since January 2021, Biden’s first month in office. That increase in wages has eased the inflationary hit to consumers. But compounding inflation means overall prices have outpaced this increase.

Biden, however, fares better when using two other credible time frames.

One is to compare today with February 2020, the last full month before the coronavirus pandemic hit. The pandemic represented such an economic upheaval that February 2020 is a plausible benchmark for a "normal" economy.

Using the prepandemic comparison, inflation is up by 20.4% since February 2020, but wages are up by 21.5%. So, over this period, worker pay has absorbed all the price increases and then some.

Another comparison focuses on the most recent data and should better predict future trend lines.

From March 2023 to March 2024, inflation rose by 3.5%, but wages increased 4.1%. Again, over this period, workers’ wage gains outpaced rising prices.

Dean Baker, an economist with the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, added that Biden isn’t using an obscure or twisted statistic to make his point on inflation.

"Biden is talking about inflation the way we always talk about inflation, as an annual rate," Baker said. "He's not pulling a fast one here. That is absolutely the standard way to discuss inflation."

Our ruling

Rubio said, "It's very misleading when (Biden) says (inflation) used to be at 9%. This is compounding. It’s not like it went down from 9% to 3%. This is building month after month. The better way to think about it is that it’s 18%, 19% over the last three years."

Inflation compounds, and it has risen by about 19% during Biden’s presidency.

However, it’s not "very misleading" for Biden to say inflation has eased, given that wage gains have cushioned the blow of higher prices.

Since February 2020, and also over the last year, wages have increased faster than prices.

The statement is partially accurate but omits important details, so we rate it Half True.

Our Sources

Louis Jacobson has been with PolitiFact since 2009, currently as chief correspondent.