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Fact checking the Democratic responses to the State of the Union speech

Here's a roundup of the Democrats's most dubious claims in their responses to the State of the Union address. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

We fact-checked 18 claims from President Trump’s first State of the Union speech, but he wasn’t the only one throwing around dubious numbers and words.

Four politicians gave responses right after the president’s speech. Democrats got several bites at the apple, with one official response from Rep. Joe Kennedy (Mass.) and another in Spanish from Virginia Del. Elizabeth Guzman. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) delivered his own lengthy rebuttal, and former Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) gave a response on behalf of the Working Families Party.

It’s worth delving into eight of their claims. As with Trump’s speech, we won’t be giving Pinocchio ratings for these responses.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

“Over the last year, after adjusting for inflation, the average worker in America saw a wage increase of, are you ready for this, 4 cents an hour, or 0.17 percent. Or, to put it in a different way, that worker received a raise of a little more than $1.60 a week.”

Trump said in his speech that “after years of wage stagnation, we are finally seeing rising wages.” But Sanders argues that wages barely rose during Trump’s first year in office.

There are a few ways to measure this, and depending on the metric, wages for U.S. workers either rose or fell in 2017.

Let’s first take a look at the data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median weekly wage in 2017 dropped 1.1 percent, from $349 to $345, using 1982-to-1984 dollars to adjust for inflation. In current dollars, the median wage increased from $846 to $854, or 0.9 percent, according to the BLS data.

But that’s just one metric. Instead of using weekly earnings, the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project analyzed average hourly earnings for employees in the private sector. After adjusting for inflation, the group found that real wage growth was 0.2 percent in 2017, which is roughly in sync with Sanders’s 0.17 percent figure.

Using the weekly earnings number is fair, said Ryan Nunn, an economist at the Hamilton Project. But the data on average hourly earnings is drawn from a much bigger survey, he added.

“We liked the data we’re using because it can be more precise over shorter time periods because it’s based on a larger survey,” Nunn said. “They’re polling hundreds of thousands of establishments as opposed to a much smaller number of individual workers.”

The group only looks at “production and nonsupervisory workers,” or the bottom 80 percent of the workforce, Nunn added.

A spokesman for Sanders said he was citing a study from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that analyzed the same data as the Hamilton Project and came to largely the same conclusion.

That study says wages rose 0.4 percent for U.S. workers in 2017, which is slightly higher than the 0.17 percent figure Sanders offers. But note that Sanders is talking about the “average worker.” Accounting for only production and nonsupervisory workers, wages rose 0.17 percent in 2017, according to the Center for American Progress.

For what it’s worth, wages have been rising steadily since the end of the Great Recession, before Trump took office. But the United States has not yet overcome a four-decade problem with stagnating wages, Nunn said. “Real wage growth has been slightly stronger since the Great Recession ended,” he said. “The wage growth you’ve seen over the last 10 years or so is not really large enough to end the wage stagnation you’ve seen in the long run.”

“The reality is that although we were able to beat back Trump’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, 3 million fewer Americans have health insurance today than before Trump took office and that number will be going even higher in the coming months.”

Sanders says 3 million fewer Americans were covered by health insurance in 2017, citing the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index.

The biggest reason for this change was people declining to buy health insurance, Gallup reported. Republicans tried throughout the year and ultimately succeeded in repealing a section of the Affordable Care Act that imposes a tax on adults who are not insured (the “individual mandate”).

Sanders laments that millions fewer people have health insurance, but it’s possible that many of them are healthy adults who decided they didn’t need insurance in 2017 and took a pass at a time when Congress discussed a repeal of the individual mandate.

The Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index is a survey of 25,000 people, and it’s not the only measurement out there. The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics publishes regular reports on the number of uninsured people in select states. The most recent study of 39,480 people measures coverage rates in the first half of 2017. It found that the number of uninsured people increased by 200,000 in that period.

“In the first six months of 2017, the percentage of persons of all ages who were uninsured at the time of interview was 9.0 percent (28.8 million),” the study says. “There was no significant change from the 2016 uninsured rate of 9.0 percent (28.6 million).”

The bottom line here is that millions of people have gotten insured in recent years, largely due to the Affordable Care Act. The CDC report says 19.8 million fewer people were uninsured in June 2017 compared with 2010. Meanwhile, the number of insured people declined in 2017, according to a study that says many of them chose not to purchase insurance.

“As president, the tax reform legislation Trump signed into law a few weeks ago provides 83 percent of the benefits to the top one percent, drives up the deficit by $1.7 trillion, and raises taxes on 92 million middle-class families by the end of the decade.”

It’s well settled that the Republican tax plan provides most of the benefits to the top earners, and the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the plan would increase the deficit by $1.7 trillion over 10 years, including added debt service.

So we’re going to focus on the last part of Sanders’s claim, that the tax plan Trump signed in December “raises taxes on 92 million middle-class families by the end of the decade.”

Unlike some other politicians who say the plan raises taxes outright, Sanders is careful to note that the higher rates would kick in “by the end of the decade.” That’s because tax-cut provisions for individuals are set to expire after 2027, and they were designed using a relatively low inflation forecast.

Sanders took a study from the Tax Policy Center and used it to estimate the number of households making less than $200,000 a year by the time the tax cuts end.

But Sanders is assuming Congress would let the tax cuts expire instead of extending them — not a sure bet.

Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), official Democratic response

“We choose an economy strong enough to boast record stock prices and brave enough to admit that top CEOs making 300 times the average worker is not right.”

This has been a popular talking point for Democrats since the Economic Policy Institute first published a study making this comparison in 2014.

At the top 350 U.S. firms, in terms of sales, average chief executive compensation was $15.2 million in 2013, or 295.9 times higher than the average compensation of employees at those companies, the EPI study found.

This ratio in 1965 was much lower (20 to 1) and it most recently peaked in 2000 at 383.4 to 1.

What Kennedy leaves out is that the EPI study is updated annually, and in the most recent version, covering 2016, the ratio between CEO and worker pay at the top 350 companies had declined somewhat, to 271 to 1.

In making his point, Kennedy accurately refers only to the “top CEOs.” But it’s important to note that he is presenting an outdated snapshot of only one year (2013) and that the EPI study is not the only research on this subject. Similar data from the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg show that the ratio between what top CEOs and their workers make is closer to 200 to 1.

Virginia Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D), Democratic response in Spanish

“He also wanted to destroy protections for people with preexisting conditions, and to punish the elderly with a cruel tax just because of their age.”

Trump in 2017 supported Republican plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Those plans would have altered a core element of the ACA — the requirement that insurers cover people with preexisting conditions — but as we noted at the time, the impact varied according to the proposal.

Guzman goes on to say that Trump would have imposed a “cruel tax” on the elderly. But what she’s referring to is not precisely a tax, and it wouldn’t have hit all the elderly.

Under the ACA, insurers on the individual marketplace can charge people from ages 50 to 64 up to three times what they charge younger consumers. Under the GOP plan, the upper limit would have increased from three times to five times.

But this would not be a tax imposed by the government so much as a cost set by a private company. And none of this would have affected people on Medicare or those on employer-sponsored health coverage, as our friends at PolitiFact reported.

“He also rescinded laws allowing workers to keep the tips they have earned through their hard work.”

The Obama administration barred some employers such as restaurants from pooling tips and redistributing them among workers. The ban mostly benefited tipped employees who made close to minimum wage, since they could not be forced to share their tips with non-tipped employees.

Under Trump, the Department of Labor stopped enforcing this rule in July and proposed a rollback in December. The regulation may not be long for this world, but for now, it’s still on the books and has not yet been rescinded. The U.S. Supreme Court has a pending request to hear a case on the tip-pooling ban. It could decide to take the case and have the last word.

Moreover, even though the Trump administration’s move allows tip-pooling to happen, it doesn’t require it.

Former Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.), Working Families Party response

Trump is “engaging in an unprecedented purge of the Department of Justice just as Special Counsel Mueller closes in on him.”

The FBI, a part of the Justice Department, has seen an upheaval in its leadership ranks. Amid an investigation into his campaign’s dealings with Russia, Trump fired former Director James B. Comey in May and criticized Deputy Director Andrew G. McCabe for months until McCabe left the bureau Jan. 29. He also fired the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, in January 2017 when she refused to defend Trump’s travel ban on majority-Muslim countries. (Yates was an Obama administration holdover.)

The Washington Post has reported that Trump has also voiced his displeasure with the top two Justice Department officials, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. But those two are still on the job.

Edwards characterizes the situation as an “unprecedented purge,” but the Russia investigation has so far continued to progress, and a purge typically involves a larger number of people.

After Comey’s firing, Rosenstein tapped Robert S. Mueller III, a former FBI director, to be special counsel of the Russia investigation. Edwards says Mueller is closing in on Trump, but there has been no indication that Mueller intends to charge the president with wrongdoing.

“Because of the Trump tax scam, a projected 13 million Americans will lose their health care altogether, and it’ll be more expensive for millions of others to maintain their existing care.”

Republicans ended up repealing the individual mandate in the tax package Trump signed in December, after their efforts to repeal and replace the ACA collapsed earlier in 2017.

Edwards is citing a report from the Congressional Budget Office that projects 13 million fewer Americans will have health insurance coverage in 2027 as a result of repealing the individual mandate.

But it’s not clear that all of those people would “lose” coverage. The report says only that 13 million fewer people would be insured.

The CBO says: “Those effects would occur mainly because healthier people would be less likely to obtain insurance and because, especially in the non-group market, the resulting increases in premiums would cause more people to not purchase insurance.” So, some people would spare themselves the expense because they’re healthy, prices would rise for the rest of consumers as a result, and some of them would forgo coverage because of those price increases.

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Share the Facts
Washington Post rating logo Washington Post Rating:
Depends on the metric
“Over the last year, after adjusting for inflation, the average worker in America saw a wage increase of … 4 cents an hour."
Response to Trump’s State of the Union speech
Tuesday, January 30, 2018
Share the Facts
Washington Post rating logo Washington Post Rating:
Not the whole story
"Although we were able to beat back Trump’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, 3 million fewer Americans have health insurance today than before Trump took office."
Response to Trump’s State of the Union speech
Tuesday, January 30, 2018
Share the Facts
Washington Post rating logo Washington Post Rating:
Not the whole story
"Top CEOs making 300 times the average worker is not right."
Response to Trump’s State of the Union speech
Tuesday, January 30, 2018