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Fact-checking the third Democratic presidential debate

Here's a roundup of 5 claims from the third Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 campaign. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

In the third Democratic presidential debate, the candidates tossed out lots of facts and figures, occasionally getting out over their skis. Here’s a selection of some of the claims that caught our attention, written with my colleagues Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios in debate roundups.

“We didn’t lock people up in cages; we didn’t separate families.”

— Former vice president Joe Biden

Contrary to Biden’s claim, the Obama administration did use caged enclosures beginning in 2014 to hold families apprehended along the southern border by U.S. authorities. There is photographic evidence showing the cages in 2014.

Moreover, a former homeland security secretary under Obama, Jeh Johnson, has said that “we expanded family detention … I freely admit it was controversial.” The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Obama administration over this expanded detention program. “Locking up families and depriving them of their liberty in order to scare others from seeking refuge in the U.S. is inhumane and illegal,” Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said at the time.

The Trump administration also has been criticized for holding migrants in border facilities with cages. Biden was drawing a contrast between the administrations, but he erred when he said cages weren’t used under Obama.

However, Biden is on solid ground when he distinguishes President Trump’s family separation policy from Obama’s. Under its zero-tolerance policy last year, the Trump administration systematically separated migrant families apprehended at the border.

The zero-tolerance approach is worlds apart from the Obama- and George W. Bush-era policy of separating children from adults at the border only in limited circumstances, such as when officials suspected human trafficking or another kind of danger to the child, or when false claims of parentage were made.

“We have more African Americans under criminal supervision today than all the slaves in 1850.”

— Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.)

There are several problems with this claim. First, as Booker framed it, it’s simply wrong. The 1850 Census counted 3.6 million slaves. That’s compared to African Americans constituting 2.3 million, or 34 percent, of the total 6.8 million correctional population in 2014.

A Booker spokeswoman as evidence sent us a link to a 2014 PolitiFact fact check about a different claim — that more black men are now in prison and correctional control than were slaves in 1850. “In total, there were about 1.68 million African American men under state and federal criminal justice supervision in 2013, 807,076 more than the number of African American men who were enslaved in 1850,” the fact check said, rating it “True.”

But that’s not what Booker said.

Moreover, even if the black men comparison is correct in terms of raw numbers, it’s still misleading because the U.S. population has soared since 1850, as our colleagues at Wonkblog noted in 2015. The census that year found that roughly 9 in 10 of the nation’s 3.6 million black people were enslaved. By contrast, 1 in 11 black people is under correctional supervision today, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Over 90 percent of the American people think we have to get assault weapons off the street — period.”

— Biden

This is wildly off base. Support for banning the sale of assault weapons usually ranges from 50 to 60 percent in recent surveys. It was 56 percent in the Washington Post-ABC poll released this week. Fifty-two percent in that same poll supported a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons. A Monmouth University poll released this week found 43 percent supported a mandatory buyback program.

Biden may have been mixing up the statistics for polling on expanding background checks, which does get support in the 90 percent range.

“You’ve got to defend the fact that 500,000 Americans are going bankrupt. You know why they’re going bankrupt? Because they suffered a terrible disease — cancer or heart disease.”

— Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Campaigning for universal health care, Sanders claims 500,000 people go bankrupt every year from medical bills or illness. That’s about two-thirds of the 750,000 total bankruptcies per year.

Sanders’s claim is based on a study published by the American Journal of Public Health in March. The researchers surveyed debtors and asked about factors that contributed to their bankruptcies. Forty-four percent said either medical bills or loss of work related to illness “very much” contributed; 22 percent said either medical bills or illness “somewhat” contributed. Combining both groups of respondents, the study estimated 530,000 bankruptcies a year.

But the study doesn’t establish that all 530,000 bankruptcies were caused by medical bills or illness, as Sanders describes it. The lead researcher behind the study says Sanders’s claim might be on target when measuring only the share of respondents who said medical bills or illness “very much” contributed to their bankruptcies. But those estimates are not in the study itself.

A different study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the same question of medical bankruptcies and found that the rate was far lower: 30,000 to 50,000 a year. However, this study was limited to non-elderly people in California who were admitted to the hospital for non-birth-related reasons, so it covers only a subset of all people facing medical debt.

The research team Sanders cited once included Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who contributed to earlier versions of their study when she was a Harvard professor. Interestingly, though, Warren doesn’t appear to make the same claim about 500,000 medical bankruptcies a year.

We recently gave Three Pinocchios to Sanders for this claim, and his campaign sharply criticized our fact check.

“We have a Congress that is beholden to the gun industry. And unless we’re willing to address that head on and roll back the filibuster, we’re not going to get anything done on guns. I was in the United States Senate when 54 senators said let’s do background checks, let’s get rid of assault weapons, and with 54 senators, it failed because of the filibuster.”

— Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

In 2013, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the Senate held separate votes on banning assault weapons and strengthening background checks for gun sales. Warren conflated them.

The bill on background checks got 54 votes, as Warren said during the debate, and fell prey to the filibuster. But the assault weapons ban received 40 votes from Democrats at a time when they held 55 seats in the Senate (counting the independents in their caucus), so the filibuster was not a factor in this case.

“To be clear, Joe, in the United States of America, we are spending twice as much per capita on health care as the Canadians or any other major country on earth.”

— Sanders

Sanders is right that the United States pays far more than per capita on health care than any other major country in the world ($9,892 in 2016) — and that it’s twice as much as Canada ($4,753). Moreover, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) median was $4,033. But Switzerland is a major developed country, and U.S. costs are 25 percent higher than Switzerland ($7,919). These figures come from a study by a team led by a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researcher.

“One forecast recently says that it [Trump’s tariff war] has already cost us 300,000 jobs, all right?”

— Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)

Klobuchar is referring to a recent estimate by Moody’s Analytics that Trump’s tariffs on imports from China have reduced U.S. employment by 300,000. The number reflects jobs eliminated by firms struggling with tariffs and jobs that were not created because of reduced economic activity. Without a change in policy, Moody’s said, the job toll will hit 450,000 by the end of 2019 and 900,000 by the end of 2020.

“There is a reason why in the last 45 years, the average American today, despite an explosion of technology and worker productivity, is not making a penny more than he or she made 45 years ago.”

— Sanders

This is a favorite line of Sanders’s. And one can make a case that it’s accurate. The Pew Research Center, in a report titled “For most U.S. workers, real wages have barely budged in decades,” said that “After adjusting for inflation, however, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power it did in 1978, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. . . . The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 had the same purchasing power that $23.68 would today.”

But some analysts say it’s not very useful to compare wages over such a long period. The picture looks better if one takes a different starting point. Wages are up nearly 20 percent since 1996, for instance.

Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute wrote recently for Bloomberg that there is a better argument for “comparing today’s wages with those of the early 1990s (or even more recently), rather than going back to the early 1970s, when many of today’s workers were just children.”

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