PBS aired the sixth Democratic presidential debate on Feb. 11, a post-New Hampshire showdown between former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).
Not every statement could be easily fact-checked, but here are 11 suspicious or interesting claims. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios when we do a roundup of facts in debates.
“We will end the absurdity of women today making 79 cents on the dollar compared to men”
— Bernie Sanders
There is clearly a wage gap, but differences in the life choices of men and women — such as women tending to leave the workforce when they have children — make it difficult to make simple comparisons.
Sanders is using a figure (annual wages, from the Census Bureau) that makes the disparity appear the greatest — 21 cents on the dollar.
But the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that the gap is 18 cents when looking at weekly wages. The gap is even smaller when you look at hourly wages — 13 cents. But not every wage earner is paid on an hourly basis, so that statistic excludes salaried workers.
In other words, since women in general work fewer hours than men in a year, the statistics used by Sanders may be less reliable for examining wage discrimination, the focus of legislation touted by Democrats such as Sanders and Clinton. The weekly wage is more of an apples-to-apples comparison, but it does not include as many income categories.
Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis surveyed the economic literature and concluded that “research suggests that the actual gender wage gap (when female workers are compared with male workers who have similar characteristics) is much lower than the raw wage gap.” They cited one survey, prepared for the Labor Department under then-President George W. Bush, that concluded that when such differences are accounted for, the hourly wage gap dwindled to about 5 cents on the dollar.
But a more recent study conducted by Francine Blau, a Cornell University economist, and other researchers found that a woman’s career decisions represent about half the wage gap. Industry choice accounts for 17.6 percent, occupation choice makes up 32.9 percent and region drives 3 percent. Thirty-eight percent is “unexplained” and could be the result of discrimination. That adds up to almost a 8 cent differential between men and women, much less than the 21 cents suggested by Sanders.
“Almost all new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent.”
— Bernie Sanders
One of Sanders’s favorite talking points is based on an outdated statistic. The numbers changed over the summer, as Sanders has sometimes acknowledged. But in this debate, he once again lapsed into an old talking point.
Sanders is relying on the research of Emmanuel Saez, a University of California at Berkeley professor who had once concluded that the top 1 percent accumulated 91 percent of all income gains from 2009 to 2012. But when the numbers were updated in June, they showed that the top 1 percent captured 58 percent of total real income growth. “The recovery from the Great Recession now looks less lopsided than in previous years,” Saez said.
Moreover, there are limitations in Saez’s data, which tallies wages, taxable interest and dividends, rental income and so forth. Social Security and unemployment benefits are not counted. Neither are government transfer payments, such as food stamps or veterans benefits. The data also does not include non-cash items, such as employer-provided health insurance. Lastly, the impact of income and payroll taxes are not part of the calculations, even though the rich pay most of the taxes — and some lower-income workers actually receive payments, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, that offset all of their federal payroll and income taxes.
In other words, the statistics show part of the income picture — essentially the wages. They do not necessarily show everything that Americans receive to help them pay for the things they consume, be it food stamps (for the poor) or company-provided health insurance.
“Americans haven’t had a raise in 15 years.”
— Hillary Clinton
Clinton makes a broad claim about Americans’ wages, but her claim is incorrect, according to official Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for earnings.
It’s a common talking point among both Democratic and Republican politicians: that there has been wage stagnation in the past 13 to 15 years. But such claims do not reflect a broad increase in real wages and earnings among Americans.
Bureau of Labor Statistics data show real average weekly earnings of non-supervisory employees in December 2015 were 9.2 percent higher than they were in December 2000.
We “have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country on Earth.”
— Bernie Sanders
Sanders is comparing the United States to other member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. By saying “almost” any major country, he’s on safer ground making this claim.
A 2014 UNICEF report showed the United States has among the worst childhood poverty rates of wealthy nations. The United States is behind the OECD member countries Greece, Spain, Israel and Mexico (and non-OECD country Latvia). In the past, Sanders has generalized this talking point by suggesting the United States has the highest childhood poverty rate among industrialized countries.
“When we have more people in jail, disproportionately African American and Latino, than China does, a communist, authoritarian society four times our size. Here’s my promise, at the end of my first term as president, we will not have more people in jail than any other country.”
Sanders accurately cites the only credible source available for international comparisons of prison populations. We’d like to note a point of caution, however: the figures from China are not entirely reliable.
The World Prison Population List, published by the U.K.-based International Centre for Prison Studies, is the go-to source for the breakdown of global prison populations. The most recent report, published this month, uses data available through October 2015.
The report notes that its numbers are incomplete for some countries, mainly China. The United States ranked the highest with 2.2 million prisoners. China ranked second, with 1.6 million. But the China figure includes only sentenced prisoners; it does not include the unknown number in pre-trial detention or “administrative detention.” (More than 650,000 people were held in 2009 in other forms of detention in China, the report says.)
It’s difficult to make accurate comparisons of prisoner populations because of the cultural factors influencing imprisonment in each country and the availability of accurate data. Countries such China, North Korea and Iran may play down the figures reported to the public.
There are different practices for housing pre-trial detainees, juveniles and offenders with mental illnesses or drug addictions. Some repressive countries with more violent police forces may have fewer people who are tried, convicted and imprisoned, and more people beaten or killed on the street.
But with all these caveats, Sanders is making quite a promise — that as president he would reduce the prison population by nearly 600,000 people in four years.
“Who denies that African American youth unemployment, real, is over 50 percent?”
— Bernie Sanders
This is a go-to Sanders talking point. When he refers to “real” unemployment, he’s not referring to actual unemployment rates, but the broadest measure of underemployment.
Later in the debate, Sanders repeated this figure and said African American “youth unemployment [is] at 51 percent.” Sanders’s statistics refer to high school graduates between 17 and 20 years old who are not enrolled in additional schooling. He is citing research from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
The report looks at employment status for high school graduates who are unemployed, working part-time and “marginally attached to the labor force” (meaning “those who want a job and have looked for work in the last year but have given up actively seeking work in the last four weeks”). It uses the broadest measure of underemployment, called the U-6 measure of labor underutilization.
This report is different from the official unemployment rate published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which does not break out data for 17- to 20-year-olds.
“Senator Sanders voted in 1998 on what I think is fair to call a regime-change resolution with respect to Iraq, calling for the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime.”
This is correct. The text of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 was fairly explicit: “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.”
One of the key reasons in the resolution was Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians. And Sanders, then a member of the House, voted for it.
“He voted in favor of regime change with [respect to] Libya, voted in favor of the Security Council being an active participant in setting the parameters for what we would do, which of course we followed through on.”
In this case, Clinton pushes the envelope a bit.
Sanders was a co-sponsor of a nonbinding Senate resolution that passed by unanimous consent and called for Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to “resign his position and permit a peaceful transition to democracy.” The resolution also asked “the United Nations Security Council to take such further action as may be necessary to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory.”
But there is no explicit mention of “regime change.” The Obama administration used the U.N. resolution to pressure Gaddafi to step down, but he was ultimately killed during the uprising.
Sanders at the time made it clear that he was not a fan of U.S. military engagement. Noting the United States was fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sanders told Fox News: “I’m not quite sure we need a third war, and I hope the president tells us that our troops will be leaving there, that our military action in Libya will be ending very, very shortly.”
“What I’m concerned about is not disagreement on issues — saying that, ‘This is what I’d rather do, I don’t agree with the president on that’ — [but] calling the president weak, calling him a disappointment, calling several times that he should have a primary opponent when he ran for reelection in 2012. You know, I think that goes further than saying, ‘We have our disagreements.’ ”
Sanders visibly disagreed with Clinton as she said this, and rightfully so: There’s some context missing here.
Our friends at FactCheck.org have written about this since November, when former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley first raised the issue that Sanders had sought a primary opponent to run against Obama in 2012 to push him further to the left. They found that Sanders did voice some support for a primary opponent.
Sanders supported Obama in the 2008 general election. Starting in 2010, Sanders voiced his disagreement with some of Obama’s decisions. He criticized Obama over breaking his promise to lift a cap on payroll taxes and for compromising on a deal with Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts.
Here is the complete Sanders remark from a 2011 radio interview that Clinton appears to be referring to when she says Sanders called Obama “weak” and a “disappointment”:
“Let me just suggest this. I think that there are millions of Americans who are deeply disappointed in the president, who believe that with regard to Social Security and a number of other issues, he said one thing as a candidate and is doing something very much else as a president, who cannot believe how weak he has been — for whatever reason — in negotiating with Republicans, and there’s deep disappointment. So my suggestion is, I think, you know one of the reasons the president has been able to move so far to the right is that there is no primary opposition to him. And I think it would do this country a good deal of service if people started thinking about candidates out there to begin contrasting what is a progressive agenda as opposed to what Obama is doing.”
When asked in a separate interview if Sanders had anyone in mind to challenge Obama in the Democratic primaries, Sanders said that he believed Obama would be the Democratic candidate in 2012. He added:
“But do I believe that it is a good idea for our democracy, and for the Democratic Party — and I speak, by the way, as an independent — that people start asking the president some hard questions about why he said one thing during his previous campaign and is doing another thing today on Social Security, on Medicare? I think it is important that that discussion take place.”
Sanders publicly supported Obama’s reelection by early 2012.
“Let us be clear that every proposal that I have introduced has been paid for.”
“My price tag is about $100 billion a year. And again, paid for.”
Candidates always claim they pay for their campaign proposals. But voters should always be wary. There’s often a lot of funny math.
Sanders’s proposal for single-payer health care, for instance, has come under fire by a respected health economist, Kenneth Thorpe of Emory University.
“The analysis [of Sanders’s health plan] however estimates that the average annual cost of the plan would be approximately $2.5 trillion per year creating an average of over a $1 trillion per year financing shortfall,” Thorpe wrote. “To fund the program, payroll and income taxes would have to increase from a combined 8.4 percent in the Sanders plan to 20 percent…. Overall 71 percent of workers and their families with private insurance would pay more for the single payer tax compared to the additional insurance benefits.”
The Sanders campaign strongly disputes this analysis, as one might expect. But caveat emptor when candidates say their plans are paid for: The level of analysis rarely rises to the level of the Congressional Budget Office.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form
Check out our 2016 candidates fact-check page
Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter