By Emily Larsen
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders made several claims about wealth inequality and the economy in a 2020 presidential campaign announcement video released last Tuesday.
Here are five checks on his claims.
Claim 1: “Three billionaires now own more wealth than the bottom half of the country.”
The Daily Caller News Foundation found in November 2017 that this claim was credible, but some economists think the statistic isn’t particularly useful.
Federal Reserve data showed that the combined net worth of U.S. households was negative below the 48th percentile, according to a 2017 report from the Institute for Policy Studies, because many Americans owe more than they own – about a fifth of households have zero or negative net wealth. Someone with a net worth of $1 would be wealthier than the bottom 48 percent combined.
Forbes estimated in 2017 that the three richest billionaires in the U.S. – Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett – had a combined net worth of nearly $250 billion. Each man’s net worth has increased since then, and the 2018 Forbes 400 showed that they had a combined net worth of $345 billion.
The entire 2017 Forbes 400, with a combined wealth of $2.7 trillion, was worth more than 33 million families with a median household net worth of $80,000.
Claim 2: “We should not have 30 million Americans without any health insurance.”
Government surveys find that nearly 30 million people do not have health insurance.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported for the first half of 2018 that 28.5 million people of all ages, 8.8 percent of the population, were uninsured – not significantly different from its finding of 29.3 million uninsured in 2017. Among adults aged 18 to 64, 12.5 percent, or 24.8 million people, were uninsured in 2018.
The Census Bureau also found that 28.5 million people, 8.8 percent of the population, did not have health insurance at any point during the year in 2017. That rate was 12.2 percent for working-age adults, 19 to 64.
Other surveys found that comparable proportions of U.S. adults were uninsured.
The Commonwealth Fund found that in 2018, 12.4 percent of adults aged 19 to 64 were uninsured, equating to 24 million people. A Gallup survey showed that 13.7 percent of U.S. adults were uninsured in the fourth quarter of 2018, and a Health Affairs analysis of a survey from the Urban Institute found that 10.8 percent of non-elderly adults were uninsured in the first quarter of 2018.
Claim 3: “A nation in which life expectancy is actually in decline.”
“Tragically, this troubling trend is largely driven by deaths from drug overdose and suicide,” CDC Director Robert R. Redfield said in a statement about the life expectancy report. “These sobering statistics are a wakeup call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable.”
A record 70,237 people died from drug overdoses in 2017, an increase from 63,632 in 2016.
The CDC found a statistically significant decrease in the cancer death rate from 2016 to 2017.
The 2017 life expectancy estimate may later be revised, like previous years, when updated Medicare data becomes available.
Claim 4: “Half of older workers have no savings as they face retirement.”
A 2015 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), based on a 2013 Federal Reserve survey, found that 52 percent of households aged 55 and older have no retirement savings in a 401(k), IRA or other type of retirement account. Sanders requested that GAO prepare the report.
However, some of those households, 23 percent, had a defined benefit plan like a pension or an annuity but no additional retirement savings. These plans carry the risk of the employer running out of funds and canceling the plan, in which case federal insurance can pay promised benefits subjects to a certain limit. Nearly three in 10 older households had no defined benefit plan or other retirement savings.
Other surveys have also found that many older Americans have little in the way of retirement savings. A 2018 Northwestern Mutual survey reported that 33 percent of baby boomers had $25,000 or less in retirement savings. A 2016 GoBankingRates survey found that 28 percent of baby boomers had no savings at all.
A Federal Reserve survey found that 59 percent of households with heads aged 55 to 64, 50 percent aged 65 to 74 and 41 percent aged 75 or older had retirement accounts in 2016.
Claim 5: “We should not have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country on earth.”
The U.N. International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) found in a 2017 report that an above-average percentage of children in the U.S., 29.4 percent, lived in relative income poverty in 2014 compared to 40 other countries. It had a lower poverty rate, however, than Spain, Mexico, Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel and Romania.
This does not necessarily mean that the 29.4 percent of U.S. children are poorer than those higher-ranking countries like Hungary and Poland. The report shows what proportion of children in each country live in households with disposable income less than 60 percent that country’s national median.
Another report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked childhood poverty across 43 countries by comparing what proportion of children lived in households with disposable income less than 50 percent the national median for 2015 or the latest available year. The U.S. ranked above Russia, Chile, Spain, India, Turkey, Israel, Costa Rica, Brazil, South Africa and China.
Sanders’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
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