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The Journal Gazette

Monday, April 15, 2019 8:40 am

Fact check: A guide to Democratic talking points

GLENN KESSLER | Washington Post

We have given lots of Pinocchios in recent weeks to Democrats running for president. Regular readers know that The Fact Checker generally awards Geppetto Checkmarks to claims that are unexpectedly true.

As we have been keeping track of the Democrats seeking the 2020 presidential nomination, we have noticed a number of interesting factual statements being made by Democrats that are not worthy of Pinocchios but do not quite rise to the level of a Geppetto Checkmark.

Many of these claims have to do with the state of working Americans. Readers will probably be hearing these lines in the coming months, so we thought we would provide a quick roundup that explains the sources and context of these numbers.

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"Housing costs are crushing the middle class. Over 11 million Americans are spending more than half of their income on housing." -- Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.

This is an example of a line that appears to have been tweaked in response to a fact check. Harris used to say that "over 11 million Americans spend more than half of what they make on rent," adding "this means less money for other necessities like bus fares, groceries, heat and medicine."

Notice that she now says "housing." The folks at Check Your Fact noted that the U.S. Census Bureau found at least 11 million rental households spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs such as rent and utilities. So, obviously, that would include heating costs, making Harris's original language overstated.

Two different analyses of census data -- by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Joint Center for Housing Studies -- have found that 11 million rental households paid more than half their income on housing costs.

Harris simplifies "households" to "Americans" and does not specify that these are numbers about rentals. But, if anything, that reduces the number of Americans living in homes severely burdened by housing costs.

"Forty percent of Americans say they don't have enough cash to cover a $400 emergency expense. That could be the car breaking down, a hospital bill you didn't expect. That's not right." -- Harris

This statistic is courtesy of a Federal Reserve report titled "The Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households." The 2018 version of the report states: "Four in 10 adults, if faced with an unexpected expense of $400, would either not be able to cover it or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money."

But the report noted the ratio is an improvement from 2013, when half of the adults said they were "ill-prepared for such an expense." In 2017, 59 percent said they could cover the expense, a significant increase.

Of the people who could not cover the expense, 43 percent said they would put it on a credit card and pay it off over time, and 26 percent said they would borrow the money from a friend or family member. Almost one-third said they would not be able to pay the expense.

"Over one-fifth of adults are not able to pay all of their current month's bills in full," the report added. "Over one-fourth of adults skipped necessary medical care in 2017 due to being unable to afford the cost."

In both cases, however, the numbers showed an improvement from 2013, indicating the long-running economic boom has had an effect.

"In health care, we have to deal with the fact that if you're a black woman in America today -- in New York City, you're 12 times more likely to die in childbirth, four times more likely nationwide." -- Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

This is basically correct, in terms of the ratios, but not all of the deaths occurred during childbirth. A 2018 report from nine maternal mortality review committees reported that about 700 women in the United States die each year as a result of pregnancy or pregnancy-related complications.

"Non-Hispanic black women experience maternal deaths at a rate three to four times that of non-Hispanic white women, a racial disparity that is mirrored across many maternal and infant outcomes," the report said. "Nearly 50 percent of all pregnancy-related deaths were caused by hemorrhage, cardiovascular and coronary conditions, cardiomyopathy, or infection.... Preeclampsia and eclampsia, and embolism were leading underlying causes of death among non-Hispanic black women."

The report said more than 60 percent of the pregnancy-related deaths were preventable.

The figures on New York City come from a study that looked at pregnancy-related mortality in the city between 2006 and 2010.

"Black, non-Hispanic women were 12 times more likely than White, non-Hispanic women to die from pregnancy-related causes between 2006 and 2010," the report said. "This represents a widening of the pregnancy-related mortality gap since the period from 2001 to 2005, when the mortality risk was seven times greater among Black, non-Hispanic women."

The figures are a bit dated, but a report on 2011 to 2015 data is pending.

"In 2017, there were more marijuana arrests in this country than all violent crime arrests combined." -- Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

Booker manages to get a talking point correct that other politicians have mangled, usually by conflating arrests with time in prison.

Almost 600,000 people in 2017 were arrested for marijuana possession, or more than one marijuana possession arrest every minute, according to estimates from Justice Department data. But relatively few of those arrested end up in prison.

All told, 659,700 people were arrested for marijuana law violations in 2017. That compares with 518,617 arrests in 2017 for violent crimes.

"A generation ago, 37 cents out of every food dollar went into a farmer's pocket. Today, it's 15 cents." -- Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Warren is referring to a well-known metric produced by the Agriculture Department -- the food dollar. This represents a $1 expenditure on domestically produced food by U.S. consumers.

USDA's Economic Research Service methodically slices and dices that dollar to show how the cost of food increases the closer it gets to a consumer's table. The farmers who grow the food are at the beginning of that chain of costs.

Warren is citing the marketing dollar bill: "For calendar year 2017, the farm share was 14.6 cents of each food dollar expenditure, and the marketing bill was 85.4 cents, accounting for the remainder of the food dollar," USDA said.

The farm share measures proceeds of farm commodity sales tied to a food dollar expenditure. The rest of the dollar includes items such as wages and materials for production, processing, marketing, transportation and distribution.

The current data set only goes back to 1993, but a 2015 Congressional Research Service report, combining several data sets, indicates the farm share was about 37 cents in the early 1970s -- a generation ago, as Warren said.

One reason the farmer's share is declining is that foods today involve a higher degree of processing or special handing -- and the more processing involved, the smaller the return for farmers.

As an example, eggs require little processing before they are sold -- they just end up in a carton -- so farmers in the early 2000s received almost 58 percent of the marketing bill, compared with the then-average of 17.8 percent for the farm share. But farmers received only 8.3 percent of the marketing bill for cereals and baked goods. USDA once estimated that a $1 loaf of bread contains about 5 cents worth of wheat.

USDA also divides the dollar by industry. Under this metric, farm production receives only 7.8 cents of the dollar. The gap between 14.6 cents and 7.8 cents indicates that farms spent 6.8 cents of the money they earned to purchase products from the other industry groups. (After all, even farmers may eat at McDonald's.)

Since Warren used the phrasing about how much of the agriculture dollars "went into a farmer's pocket," the lower number of 7.8 cents may be more appropriate than 15 cents.

"Seventy percent of our kids are never going to get a four-year degree." -- former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper.

Hickenlooper is borrowing a line that former senator Rick Santorum, R-Pa., used in 2015. But it may be getting out of date.

Census data from 2014 showed 209.3 million people in the country 25 or older, and 66.9 million with a bachelor's degree or higher (such as a master's, professional or doctoral degree). So about 68 percent of these residents did not have a four-year degree, which is close to 70 percent.

But 2018 census data shows a larger percentage of people are staying in school and are getting degrees. Of the 219.8 million people in the country who are 25 or older, 76.9 million have a bachelor's degree or higher. So the share without a four-year degree is 65 percent.

The Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics has looked at the same issue in a longitudinal study that followed young people to age 31. It found that by that age, 68 percent of respondents did not have bachelor's degrees. In 2014, the same study following young people to 27 found the figure was 72 percent.

In both cases, the percentage of people with degrees is increasing. So Hickenlooper should not be so categorical with the use of the word "never."