In a nearly two-hour press conference, President Joe Biden stretched the facts and left out important context on vaccinations, funding for lead pipe removal, child poverty and more.
- Biden exaggerated his administration’s progress against COVID-19, saying that the U.S. is “adding about 9 million more vaccinations each week.” That number has been around 7 million to 8 million doses, and more than half of them are booster doses.
- Biden claimed that “thanks to the bipartisan infrastructure bill,” workers will be “removing lead pipes” so that “every American can turn on a faucet and drink clean water.” But the new law doesn’t include nearly enough funding to remove all lead pipes in the country.
- The president had a point that the “bottom 40%” of wage earners “got a raise,” even when accounting for inflation, which he didn’t mention. But overall, inflation-adjusted wages have declined while he has been in office.
- On the topic of Russia potentially sending troops into Ukraine, Biden wrongly suggested that “it hasn’t happened since World War II” that a “nuclear power” invaded another country. That’s false; Russia invaded Ukraine as recently as 2014.
- Biden said that “we just made surprise medical bills illegal in this country,” but he needs to share credit with the previous administration. The bipartisan law was enacted in December 2020 and took effect this year.
- Biden said child poverty had dropped by “nearly 40%,” citing an estimate due to an increase in the child tax credit. But that increase in the tax credit expired in December.
Biden’s presser was on Jan. 19.
In touting his administration’s progress on vaccinating Americans against COVID-19, Biden exaggerated one figure and framed some of the data in a way that could make it appear that he has made more headway on vaccinating the unvaccinated than he actually has.
“Seventy-five percent of adults are fully vaccinated,” he said. “We’ve gone from 90 million adults with no shots in arms last summer down to 35 million with no shots as of today. And we’re adding about 9 million more vaccinations each week.”
According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of Jan. 19, 73.6% of adults were fully vaccinated, a bit less than Biden claimed. (The figure is 63% for the total U.S. population.) The number of unvaccinated adults is now down to about 33 million (assuming a total adult population of 258.3 million), according to agency statistics. But the real number is likely higher.
Indeed, following reports questioning the accuracy of the agency’s numbers, the CDC has acknowledged that it may overestimate the number of first doses because of limitations in how the data is collected and reported to the agency.
“When possible, CDC links a person’s first, second, and booster doses together,” a pop-up box on the agency’s COVID Data Tracker dashboard explains. “However, linking is sometimes not possible because CDC does not receive personally identifiable information about vaccine doses. This can lead to over-estimates of first doses and under-estimates of subsequent doses.”
One example the agency gives is someone who received their first two doses of a two-dose vaccine from a mass vaccination clinic, but then goes to a new provider for a booster, since it would be given many months later. “In such a scenario, the person’s booster dose may appear to be their first dose when reported,” the agency says on a webpage devoted to explaining its data. “This is just one example of how CDC’s data may over-estimate first doses and under-estimate booster doses.” To help reduce data errors, the CDC encourages people to bring their vaccination cards to vaccination appointments.
Biden followed up his mention of the declining number of unvaccinated adults by stating that there are “about 9 million more vaccinations each week.” This number doesn’t quite hit the mark. The most recent seven-day moving average suggests the nation has been administering approximately 7 million to 8 million new doses a week since the end of December.
But more problematic, it could leave the impression that all or most of these new vaccinations are chipping away at the unvaccinated population or adding to the ranks of the fully vaccinated.
In fact, CDC data indicate that more than half of these new vaccinations are booster doses. In the last few weeks, only around 300,000 doses on average per day have been given to the completely unvaccinated, including children, and only around 150,000 new people per day are becoming fully vaccinated. Since the beginning of June, new first vaccinations have hovered at just 200,000 to 500,000 a day. Meanwhile, the average number of boosters per day has been at least half a million — and sometimes more than a million — since Halloween.
While boosters are important, especially for the most vulnerable, many experts say the bigger priority should be reaching those who have not been vaccinated. Full vaccination, even without a booster, remains largely protective against severe COVID-19, which is the primary goal of vaccination.
Biden’s figures are accurate or close to accurate, but a sizable chunk of the U.S. remains unvaccinated — and progress on vaccinating them has mostly stalled, both for adults and children.
Biden boasted that “thanks to the bipartisan infrastructure bill,” workers will be “removing lead pipes” so that “every American can turn on a faucet and drink clean water.”
Not every American.
As Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out during a town hall in November, funding in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for lead pipe removal is well short of what’s needed to replace all of the country’s lead pipes.
“So you may have heard that this bill [the infrastructure bill] will allow every single lead pipe in the United States of America to be replaced, and that is simply not true,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “That is not funded in this bill. That is not what is in this bill. In order to do that, we need $60 billion in order to replace and remediate all the lead pipes in the United States. This bill only finances $15 billion.”
It was an example, she said then, of why it was so critical to pass the infrastructure bill in tandem with the Build Back Better Act, which would have funded another $30 billion worth of lead pipe replacement. Ocasio-Cortez was one of six Democratic votes against the infrastructure bill, a vote she said she cast, in part, to force both bills to be passed at the same time. As it turned out, the Build Back Better bill stalled after Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin announced he would not support it.
The $15 billion funding for lead pipe removal in the infrastructure bill leaves “two choices,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “$15 billion can potentially buy you the ability to identify and assess all of the lead pipes in this country, but it won’t give you the ability to actually replace them. Or you go the other way and you just choose some places to have the privilege and the benefit of getting their lead pipes removed and you allow other communities to continue to be poisoned.”
A “back-of-the-envelope calculation” by the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution estimated the cost of replacing all lead pipes in the U.S. was less than the $60 billion cited by Ocasio-Cortez, but much more than allocated in the infrastructure bill — which is all that has passed.
Brookings, May 13: A back-of-the-envelope calculation based on EPA’s estimate of average replacement cost per line ($4,700) and assumption of 6 to 10 million lead service lines across the country suggests the cost could range from $28 billion to $47 billion, putting Biden’s originally-proposed $45 billion near the top of that range — but the $15 billion legislated well below it.
In the past, Biden has tiptoed on the line, adding the qualifier that the infrastructure law “will start to replace 100% of the nation’s lead pipes … and service lines.” (Emphasis is ours.)
It may start it, but it won’t finish it. Biden said at the press conference that he is confident Congress can pass pieces of the Build Back Better agenda, but whether that might include adequate funding to replace all lead pipes in the U.S. remains to be seen.
The president had a point in saying that the “bottom 40%” of wage earners “saw their income go up the most.” Wage growth for the bottom 40% actually outpaced inflation between the second and third quarter of 2021. But other income groups’ wages didn’t rise faster than inflation, and overall, weekly wages for production and nonsupervisory workers declined by 2.2%, once adjusted for inflation, over Biden’s first 11 months in office.
Biden: And for the first time in a long time, this country’s working people actually got a raise — actually got a raise. The people — the bottom 40% saw their income go up the most of all those that got a raise.
University of Massachusetts Amherst economist Arindrajit Dube explained on Twitter in early November that wages were rising faster than inflation at the bottom of the pay scale, but not for others. “Between 2nd and 3rd qtr of 2021, the bottom 40% saw incredible growth in hourly earnings, surpassing price growth,” Dube wrote. “At the same time, those between the 50th and 80th percentile (call it the middle class) experienced wage growth below inflation levels.”
Here’s the graph Dube posted on Nov. 6:
Lots of talk about nominal wage growth, inflation.
But what's going on at different parts of the pay scale?
We do have a veritable Great Re-Compression, in that wages are rising fast at the very bottom, much >>> inflation.
At the same time, wage growth limited in middle. 🧵 pic.twitter.com/sZ26xtevge
— Arindrajit Dube (@arindube) November 7, 2021
In October, Goldman Sachs called the pay increases for low-wage workers “eye-popping,” CNN reported.
As we’ve written before, claims about wage growth depend on which measure one uses and what time period.
Overall, during Biden’s first 11 months in office, inflation-adjusted average weekly earnings for production and nonsupervisory workers — who make up 82% of all employees in the private sector — dropped 2.2%.
Invasions by Nuclear Powers
Toward the end of the press conference, while answering a question about a potential “NATO-Russia confrontation” if Russian President Vladimir Putin sends military forces into Ukraine, Biden wrongly suggested that it had been several decades since a nuclear power had “invaded” another country.
“Of course, you have to be concerned when you have, you know, a nuclear power invade — this has — if he invades — it hasn’t happened since World War II,” Biden said. “This will be the most consequential thing that’s happened in the world, in terms of war and peace, since World War II.”
We asked the White House for clarification, but we did not receive a response. However, nuclear powers have invaded other countries since the second World War ended in 1945.
In fact, as recently as 2014, Russia, which is one of the nine nations with nuclear weapons, sent troops into Ukraine and subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula. As another example, the U.S. and the United Kingdom, two other nuclear powers, were part of a multination alliance that invaded Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
It is true that no nation has used a nuclear weapon in warfare since the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II more than 75 years ago, if that was the point the president was trying to make.
Among other requests, Russia wants assurances that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO, which was established in 1949 by the U.S., Canada and several Western European nations to defend against the former Soviet Union. NATO currently has 30 member countries.
Russian officials have reportedly hinted recently that Russia may relocate some of its nuclear arsenal to within striking distance of the U.S. as part of an effort to deter a Western military expansion into Ukraine.
Surprise Medical Billing
Ticking off the accomplishments of his first year in office, Biden said that “we just made surprise medical bills illegal in this country.”
Although the Biden administration drew up the regulations to implement the law, the No Surprises Act was a bipartisan effort — co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy and Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan — and was signed into law by then-President Donald Trump as part of a government funding bill in December 2020.
Biden: And we just made surprise medical bills illegal in this country. You know those bills you get that you don’t expect — up to $2,000 or $5,000 — from a hospital, beyond what you thought you were going to have to owe because of the consultation you weren’t told was going to cost that much? No more. They’re now illegal.
The law eliminates out-of-network doctors or hospitals from sending a patient an extra — often unexpected — bill.
“Before the No Surprises Act, if you had health insurance and received care from an out-of-network provider or an out-of-network facility, even unknowingly, your health plan may not have covered the entire out-of-network cost,” the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services explains. “This could have left you with higher costs than if you got care from an in-network provider or facility. In addition to any out-of-network cost sharing you might have owed, the out-of-network provider or facility could bill you for the difference between the billed charge and the amount your health plan paid, unless banned by state law. This is called ‘balance billing.’ An unexpected balance bill from an out-of-network provider is also called a surprise medical bill.”
According to the New York Times, these so-called “surprise medical bills” cost consumers billions of dollars every year.
Although the law was passed in December 2020, it left regulators to “figure out exactly how to make the law work,” the New York Times reported. So it fell on the Biden administration to hash out the rules to implement the law, which went into effect on Jan. 1 of this year.
Nonetheless, when Biden says “we” ended surprise medical billing, credit goes to members of both parties, as well as to both the Trump and Biden administrations.
Biden boasted of a large drop in child poverty, due to an increase in the child tax credit. But that increase expired in December, and so far, Democrats have not been able to extend it.
Biden: Child poverty dropped by nearly 40% — the biggest drop ever in American history.
The American Rescue Plan, which Biden signed into law in March, increased the child tax credit from $2,000 to $3,600 per child for working families with children under 6 years old, and from $2,000 to $3,000 per child for those with kids over 6 — and extended the age limit from 16 to 17. The new version of the credit also made the full benefit available to families with low incomes, and it was paid in monthly installments of $300 or $250 per child, from July to December 2021. Although Biden’s intentions are to extend the tax credit for 2022 as part of his Build Back Better plan, it expired last year.
The child tax credit was expected to significantly reduce child poverty by increasing families’ income. Before the expansion took effect, experts estimated it could potentially reduce child poverty by around 40%, the figure Biden cited, if all children eligible received it. Some economists disagreed, though, saying child poverty would only fall by 22%, as reported by the Washington Post.
According to an analysis by Megan A. Curran at the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, as of December 2021 the expanded tax credit had reached “over 61 million children in more than 36 million households nationwide.” Although the study says that the exact impact on child poverty won’t be known until the U.S. Census Bureau publishes annual 2021 income and poverty data for families this fall, “[t]hus far, the monthly Child Tax Credit payments have had notable anti-poverty effects.”
Columbia’s research found that the first tax credit payment reduced the “monthly child poverty rate by 26 percent—keeping 3 million children from poverty whose family incomes would otherwise have been below the poverty line had the payment not been in place.” The impact has grown over time, the study says. “Over the course of five months, the total number of children kept from poverty by the Child Tax Credit payments has risen by 800,000 children, an increase of 27 percent,” it says. The center explained in another report that the monthly poverty rate would differ from annual figures, since families receive some benefits once a year.
“We haven’t seen these types of reductions in a long time,” Zachary Parolin, lead researcher at Columbia, told PBS in December, regarding the credit’s effect on childhood poverty.
Update, Feb. 11: We removed a reference to a bar graph on wages created by Harvard economist Jason Furman, who said on Feb. 11 the chart was wrong.
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