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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking the September Democratic Debate

A narrowed field of 10 Democratic candidates debated health care, immigration and gun control, but not all of their claims squared with the facts.


The false and exaggerated claims in the third Democratic debate included:

  • Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro accused former Vice President Joe Biden of “forgetting what you said two minutes ago” on Biden’s health care plan. But the two candidates were talking past each another; Biden accurately described his plan.
  • Biden said that, unlike the Trump administration, the Obama administration “didn’t lock people in cages” at the southern border. But the Obama administration did use similar chain link structures to house unaccompanied minors who illegally migrated.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders claimed “the average American” isn’t making any more money than 45 years ago. In fact, median family income has gone up 29% during that time.
  • Several candidates cited broad support for gun control measures among the public. However, both Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren overstated the support for an assault weapons ban and government buybacks.
  • Warren was half-right with her claim that Senate filibuster rules prevented passage of two gun control measures. Those rules did block a universal background check amendment, but they were not a factor in the failure to pass an assault weapons ban.
  • Sanders said that 500,000 Americans “are going bankrupt” because “they suffered a terrible disease.” But the research he cites indicates that medical bills or health problems contributed to — rather than caused — a half million bankruptcy filings.
  • Sanders repeated a claim that exaggerates the cost of health care in the U.S. compared with other countries. “We are spending twice as much per capita on health care as the Canadians or any other major country on earth,” he said. That’s true of Canada, but not of all other countries.
  • Warren said her wealth tax plan would bring in enough revenue to fund a host of education priorities for the country, but whether the tax would bring in as much as she expects is a matter of debate among leading economists and tax experts.
  • Sanders claimed the United States has “the highest child poverty rate of almost any country on earth.” The U.S. has a high “relative poverty” rate among certain countries.

Ten candidates took to the stage for the September debate, hosted by ABC News and Univision and held at Texas Southern University in Houston on Sept. 12.

Castro-Biden ‘Buy-In’ Dispute

In one of the livelier exchanges of the debate, Castro accused Biden of contradicting himself on his health plan, saying the former vice president had said people “would have to buy in” to his health plan. Biden countered, “Do not have to buy in if you can’t afford it.”

It turns out that the two candidates were talking passed each other, and were referring to different aspects of Biden’s plan.

Castro’s health care plan does differ from Biden’s in that it would automatically put everyone in a Medicare for All plan — including newborns and anyone who loses job-based insurance — but allow people to opt-out if they have “a high-standard private insurance plan,” according to Castro’s website. It’s a plan for universal coverage. Biden’s plan would expand on the current U.S. health care system. It would automatically enroll lower-income individuals “when they interact with certain institutions (such as public schools) or other programs for low-income populations (such as SNAP),” and it would allow everyone else to choose whether they wanted to enroll in “a public health insurance option like Medicare,” the plan says.

So, some wouldn’t have to opt-in (or “buy-in”): There would be a mechanism to automatically enroll those earning below 138% of the federal poverty level. Others would have to decide whether they wanted to sign up for the public option.

That isn’t different from the way Biden described it. He also described those who could choose the public option as being able to “automatically … buy into this” regardless of a “pre-existing condition” if they lose their job or get sick.

Biden: If you want Medicare, if you lose the job from your insurance — from your employer, you automatically can buy into this. You don’t have — no preexisting condition can stop you from buying in. You get covered, period. …

Every single person who is diagnosed with cancer or any other disease can automatically become part of this plan. They will not go bankrupt because of that. They will not go bankrupt because of that. They can join immediately.

Here’s some of the exchange between the candidates:

Castro: You know, I grew up with a grandmother who had type 2 diabetes, and I watched her condition get worse and worse. But that whole time, she had Medicare. I want every single American family to have a strong Medicare plan available.

If they choose to hold on to strong, solid private health insurance, I believe they should be able to do that. But the difference between what I support and what you support, Vice President Biden, is that you require them to opt in and I would not require them to opt in. They would automatically be enrolled. They wouldn’t have a buy in.

Biden: They do not have to buy in. They do not have to buy in.

Castro: You just said that. You just said that two minutes ago. You just two minutes ago that they would have to buy in.

Biden: Do not have to buy in if you can’t afford it.

Castro: You said they would have to buy in.

Biden: Your grandmother would not have to buy in. If she qualifies for Medicaid, she would automatically be enrolled.

Castro: Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago? I mean, I can’t believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in and now you’re saying they don’t have to buy in. You’re forgetting that.

Biden: I said anyone like your grandmother who has no money. …

Castro: It automatically enrolls people regardless of whether they choose to opt in or not. If you lose your job, for instance, his health care plan would not automatically enroll you. You would have to opt in. My health care plan would.

Biden is talking about those with low incomes being automatically enrolled. Castro is referring to those who wouldn’t be automatically enrolled under Biden’s plan. After the debate, Castro’s campaign sent out a press release, emphasizing that Biden’s plan would leave about 10 million uninsured, based on the plan’s statement that it would “insure more than an estimated 97% of Americans.”

Biden on Family Separations

Biden said that one reason Latinos could trust him as president is because when he was vice president, “We didn’t lock people up in cages. We didn’t separate families.”

Biden was referring to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration that resulted in children being separated from their parents who were criminally prosecuted for entering the U.S. illegally. The parents were placed in adult detention centers under the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service, while their children were held in separate facilities before being transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services for placement in a juvenile facility, foster care or with another relative in the U.S.

As we’ve written before, experts told us there were some separations under the Obama administration, but no blanket policy to prosecute parents and, therefore, separate them from their children. And an HHS inspector general report released in January noted that “historically” such family “separations were rare and occurred because of circumstances such as the parent’s medical emergency or a determination that the parent was a threat to the child’s safety.”

But Biden was wrong to say that the Obama administration did not “lock people up in cages,” as Democrats have criticized the Trump administration for doing.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection under Obama did use similar structures to house thousands of minors who tried to illegally enter the U.S. without a parent or a guardian, as can be seen in the gallery of Associated Press photos featured in a 2014 Arizona Republic story about a processing facility in Nogales, Arizona. “The children, mostly of high-school and junior-high-school age, are housed behind 18-foot-high chain-link fences topped with razor wire,” the story said.

Even Jeh Johnson, who served as the second secretary of Homeland Security under Obama, has acknowledged that the same structures were used to hold an influx of migrant children before Trump became president.

“Chain link barriers, partitions, fences, cages, whatever you want to call them, were not invented on January 20, 2017, okay?” Johnson said at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June. He said children were only kept there for a short period of time.

“But during that 72-hour period, when you have something that is a multiple — like four times — of what you’re accustomed to in the existing infrastructure, you’ve got to find places quickly to put kids. You can’t just dump 7-year-old kids on the streets of McAllen or El Paso. And so these facilities were erected … they put those chain link partitions up so you could segregate young women from young men, kids from adults, until they were either released or transferred to HHS,” Johnson said.

CBP’s standards generally limit the detention of minors to no more than 72 hours. But the inspector general’s office found that under the Trump administration about a third of the minors were being held longer than 72 hours — many for more than 10 days — in the facilities it inspected.

Americans’ Income

Sanders misled when he repeated his claim that the average American isn’t making any more money now than 45 years ago, and that “disastrous” trade policies are partly to blame.

Sanders: 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. And one of the reasons is that, for decades, we have had disastrous trade policies.

In fact, “real” (inflation-adjusted) median family income in the United States hit a record $78,646 last year, the Census Bureau reported just a few days before the debate, on Sept. 10. That income is nearly 29% higher than in 1973 — 45 years earlier — when it was $61,047 (stated in 2018 dollars).

So by that measure, the typical American family has never had it so good. That’s hard to square with the picture Sanders paints.

Sanders is most likely referring to a different and much narrower statistic — weekly wages for rank-and-file workers — as tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And it’s true that in “real” terms (after adjustment for inflation) the figure for last month was 2.8 percent below the figure for the same month 45 years earlier.

That applies to 82% of the private-sector workforce. But that leaves out self-employed individuals, executives, supervisors and of course all government workers, not to mention retirees. Furthermore, even for those rank-and-file workers, real weekly wages took their big plunge in the 1980s and early 1990s, hitting bottom in January 1996. That was barely two years after the North American Free Trade Agreement — for which Sanders partly blames the decline — took effect.

Since that low point, real weekly wages for rank-and-file workers have gone up 20 percent — despite all the trade policies Sanders says have been “disastrous.”

Gun Control Polls

Several candidates cited broad support for gun control measures among the public. However, both Biden and Warren overstated the support for an assault weapons ban and government buybacks.

Biden: Over 90% of the American people think we have to get assault weapons off the street—period.

Warren: The question we need to ask is, when we’ve got this much support across the country, 90 percent of Americans want to see us do — I like registration — want to see us do background checks, want to get assault weapons off the streets, why doesn’t it happen? And the answer is corruption, pure and simple.

According to the most recent poll from Washington Post-ABC News, 56% of people surveyed support a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons. A joint USA Today and Suffolk University survey found that 60% of people supported banning the sale of some semi-automatic assault-style weapons, such as the AK-47 and the AR-15. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey found that 49% of people strongly support banning the sale of selected semi-automatic firearms (13% “somewhat support” the ban).

There is even less support for mandatory government buybacks of assault weapons. According to the Washington Post-ABC News poll, 52% of people support mandatory assault weapons buybacks, and a Quinnipiac survey found only 46% of people support such buybacks. The NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that 50% of people strongly support a voluntary buyback program, and that 25% somewhat support a voluntary buyback program.

Warren also cited strong support for background checks in her response, as did Sen. Cory Booker. All of the polls indeed reflect strong support for requiring background checks on all potential gun sales, including guns sold privately at gun shows.

USA Today and Suffolk University found that 90% of people support background checks for all firearm sales. The Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 89% support the requirement of universal background checks. Quinnipiac University found that 93% of those polled supported universal background checks, with 89% of Republicans supporting background checks and 97% of Democrats. The NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll reflected the lowest percentage of support, with 75% of people strongly supporting universal background checks (14% of people “somewhat support” expanding background checks).

Booker brought up the issue of licensing. He said that 83% of Americans support requiring individuals to obtain a license before being able to purchase a firearm. A Quinnipiac University poll reported that 82% of people support requiring individuals to obtain a license before being able to purchase a gun, with 72% of gun owners supporting the license requirement. However, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that only 72% of people support license requirements.

Warren’s Half-Right Filibuster Claim

Asked about working with Republicans on gun control, Warren said nothing meaningful will get done unless Democrats regain control of the Senate and “roll back the filibuster.” The minority party in the Senate can block, or filibuster, legislation by taking advantage of a Senate rule that requires 60 votes – rather than a simple majority — to end debate on legislation before a final vote can be taken on the bill.

Warren: 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. Until we attack the systemic problems, we can’t get gun reform in this country. We’ve got to go straight against the industry and we’ve got to change Congress, so it doesn’t just work for the wealthy and well-connected, so it works for the people..

Warren’s first example is on target. The Manchin-Toomey amendment proposed in 2013 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting sought to require universal background checks that would cover private sales by unlicensed individuals, including some sales at gun shows and over the internet. The amendment failed to advance to a final vote, however, after a 54-46 procedural vote in the Senate.

But Warren’s second example doesn’t work. The same day as the vote on the Manchin-Toomey amendment, the Senate voted on an amendment from Sen. Dianne Feinstein that sought to ban the sale of assault weapons. It failed in a 40-60 vote, even though Democrats held a majority in the Senate at that time. So it was not hampered by filibuster rules.

Medical Bankruptcies

During the night’s discussion on health care, Sanders referred to medical bankruptcies, saying 500,000 Americans “are going bankrupt” because “they suffered a terrible disease — cancer or heart disease.”

There is research to support the idea that medical bills or medical concerns contribute to around half a million American bankruptcies a year. But not all of those bankruptcies are solely caused by medical issues, and it’s not known whether everyone had a “terrible disease.”

The statistic, which Sanders has used before, comes from a March 2019 editorial article in the American Journal of Public Health. Researchers surveyed 910 people in the U.S. who declared bankruptcy between 2013 and 2016, and found 66.5% of respondents said medical expenses or medical problems causing work loss either “somewhat” or “very much” contributed to their bankruptcies. Applying that percentage to the federal court’s most recent annual count of 750,489 non-business bankruptcy filings produces just under half a million bankruptcies that involved medical issues. The survey did not report data on specific medical conditions.

While Sanders’ statement is generally backed by the results of the survey, the findings only suggest that medical bills or an illness contributed to a bankruptcy — not that a “terrible disease” was the sole reason.

David Himmelstein, an author of the editorial article, told the Washington Post that even if one limits the calculation to the 37% of respondents who said medical expenses “very much” contributed to their bankruptcy, it’s still about a half million people who are affected because there are on average 2.71 people in each household. But that would not mean that 500,000 people would have a “terrible disease.”

The Washington Post Fact Checker previously wrote about Sanders’ use of the statistic, awarding the Vermont senator “three Pinocchios” for his claim. The article noted that the research does not show that medical issues necessarily caused the bankruptcy.

The Sanders campaign objected to the Post’s reporting and demanded a retraction. The Post has stood by its fact-check, but published a rebuttal from two of the authors of the 2019 American Journal of Public Health editorial.

Global Health Care Spending

Sanders repeated an exaggeration he’s made before when comparing the cost of health care in the U.S. to other countries. The senator said: “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.”

That’s not quite right. While the U.S. spends more on health care per capita than any other country, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, it doesn’t spend twice as much as “any other major country on earth.”

Six countries — Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Germany, Norway and Switzerland — spent more than half of the $10,586 per capita that the U.S. spent on health care in 2018, according to the OECD. Some only by a hair, though.

Denmark spent $5,299 per capita, while Switzerland, which had the second highest cost after the U.S., spent $7,317.

Sanders was right about how the U.S. compares with Canada. It spent $4,974 per capita on health care in 2018, which is less than half of the U.S. cost, according to the OECD.

Warren’s Wealth Tax

Warren ticked off an ambitious list of spending programs that she says could be paid for by her proposal for an annual wealth tax on all assets over $50 million. As we have written before, though, it is a matter of debate among economists as to whether her plan would raise as much as she expects.

Warren: I have proposed a two-cent wealth tax on the top one-tenth of 1% in this country. That would give us enough money to start with our babies by providing universal child care for every baby age zero to 5, universal pre-K for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in this country, raise the wages of every child care worker and preschool teacher in this country, cancel student loan debt for 95% of the folks who’ve got it, and strengthen our unions. This is how we build an America that reflects our values, not just where the money comes from with the billionaires and corporate executives.

We looked into Warren’s “Ultra-Millionaire Tax” plan back in June with our story “Facts on Warren’s Wealth Tax Plan.” Under Warren’s plan, households would pay an annual 2% tax on all assets — net worth — above $50 million, and a 3% tax on every dollar of net worth above $1 billion.

Although she didn’t mention during the debate just how much the plan would raise, she has previously put the figure at $2.75 trillion over 10 years, based on an analysis by University of California, Berkeley economists Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez, who study wealth inequality.

In an op-ed published in the Washington Post on April 4, Lawrence Summers, a Harvard University professor who was treasury secretary from 1999 to 2001 and an economic adviser to President Barack Obama in 2009 and 2010, and Natasha Sarin, an assistant professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and an assistant professor of finance at the Wharton School, warned the revenue estimate from the tax is unrealistically high because it fails to account for the many ways wealthy people would seek to avoid the tax.

“Common-sense revenue estimates by economists who are not very deeply steeped in revenue estimation tend to be overly optimistic,” Summers and Sarin wrote. The two looked at the U.S. experience with estate tax data and concluded Warren’s wealth tax would only raise about 40% of the amount estimated by Saez and Zucman.

Economists at the Tax Policy Center and Tax Foundation were similarly skeptical.

Kyle Pomerleau, chief economist and vice president of economic analysis at the nonprofit, pro-business Tax Foundation, warned that a wealth tax can be hard to enforce. And because the wealth tax is a significant tax on savings, he said, it will discourage people from holding on to assets, which will reduce the tax base.

Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, noted that while Warren’s plan anticipates some tax avoidance, “it will be very difficult for the IRS to keep up with the tax planning that highly-paid lawyers and accountants can devise. With so much money at risk, the wealthy will have powerful incentives to hire smart advisers to help avoid, or at least reduce, their tax liability.”

Saez and Zucman pushed back against some of these concerns in a point-by-point written response to the Summers-Sarin post. Saez and Zucman argue that their estimate is not a “‘best case’ scenario” but rather a middle ground. “With pre-populated returns based on a systematic reporting of information by third parties, a full taxation of all assets at their market value with no exemption, high audit rates, and a high exit tax, it is possible that avoidance would be below 15%,” they wrote.

We take no position on these competing opinions about how much revenue the wealth tax would generate, but simply note that there is significant disagreement among economists and tax experts.

U.S. Childhood Poverty

As he did in the first debate — and in a 2015 Democratic primary debate — Sanders exaggerated when he compared the U.S. childhood poverty rate unfavorably to other countries.

Sanders: We are the wealthiest country in the history of the world. And yet, we have the highest child poverty rate of almost any country on earth.

In 2015, when the senator made a similar claim, his campaign referred us to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data, which showed that the U.S. had the seventh highest “relative income poverty rate” for children in 2012 among 38 countries. 

The most recent OECD data still ranks the U.S. seventh among 38 countries (using 2016 data for the United States). The only countries with a higher rate were South Africa, Costa Rica, Turkey, Israel, Spain and Chile.

“Relative poverty” is a measure of household disposable income relative to others in that country. The U.S. relative poverty rate was about 1 in 5 children, or 20%, in 2016. 

By that measure, the U.S. has a high relative rate of childhood poverty among a few dozen countries. But it doesn’t have “the highest” rate of “almost any country on earth.” There are nearly 200 countries, and the OECD doesn’t measure all of them.

Also, the official U.S. childhood poverty rate, which spiked during the Great Recession, has been falling steadily in recent years.

The official rate last year for children under 18 was 16.2% — the lowest it has been since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It was 21.1% in 2014, 19.7% in 2015, 18% in 2016 and 17.4% in 2017, Census Bureau data show.  

The bureau also calculates the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which accounts for government programs that assist low-income families and are not considered in the official poverty measure. The SPM rate for children in 2018 was 14.5%.


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