President Joe Biden took questions from Wisconsin residents and from Anderson Cooper at a CNN town hall event in Milwaukee on Tuesday night.
We’re still looking into some of the claims Biden made, so this article is not comprehensive. But we can tell you now that he made at least four false claims – all of them involving statistics – about the minimum wage, undocumented immigrants, China’s economy and Covid-19 vaccinations.
Biden also made claims that could have benefited from some additional context, that he acknowledged he might not have gotten right or that there is not solid evidence for. Here is a breakdown:
The minimum wage
Biden said the $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage is too low, then said soon after: “For example, if it went – if we gradually increased it – when we indexed it at $7.20, if we kept it indexed by – to inflation, people would be making 20 bucks an hour right now. That’s what it would be.”
Facts First: This is false; the White House told CNN after the event that Biden got mixed up with another statistic about the minimum wage. Today’s federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, which took effect in 2009, would not be even close to $20 per hour if Congress had decided to link it to inflation. Adjusted for inflation, $7.25 in January 2009 was equal to $8.98 in January 2021.
The White House told CNN that Biden was attempting to refer to a claim, from a progressive think tank about how the minimum wage would have been $24 per hour in 2020 if the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity growth (not inflation) since 1968 (not 2009).
The undocumented population
Biden said of the US population of undocumented immigrants: “The vast majority of the people, those 11 million undocumented, they’re not Hispanics; they’re people who came on a visa – who was able to buy a ticket to get in a plane and didn’t go home. They didn’t come across the Rio Grande swimming…”
Facts First: Biden was wrong to claim that the majority of undocumented immigrants in the US are not Hispanic. While it is obviously difficult to compile comprehensive statistics on this population group, the Migration Policy Institute think tank estimated in 2018 that 73% of undocumented people in the US speak Spanish at home and 68% are from the Mexico and Central America region, with an additional 7% from South America. The Pew Research Center has found that the Mexican share of the undocumented population has fallen over time, but that people from Latin America still made up 77% of the 2017 undocumented population.
Biden was more correct with his second claim, about the means by which undocumented people are arriving in the US. A 2019 study by the Center for Migration Studies of New York, based on 2017 data, found that, for the seventh straight year, more newly undocumented people overstayed visas than crossed a border illegally; it was 62% overstays and 38% illegal crossings, according to the study.
Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications for the Migration Policy Institute think tank, said that while recent new additions to the undocumented population are more likely to have overstayed a visa rather than illegally crossed a border, that wasn’t the case in the past. Considering that 60% of the total undocumented population has been in the country for a decade or more, she said, “we believe a slight majority crossed a border illegally to get here.” Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies of New York, also said that, among the total undocumented population, people who crossed illegally still outnumber people who overstayed their visa.
Biden talked about how he met with China’s now-President, Xi Jinping, while Biden was vice president, and then returned to the US and mused about China’s demographic challenges. He said, “And I came back and said they’re going to end their One China – their one child policy, because they’re so xenophobic they won’t let anybody else in, and more people are retired than working. How can they sustain economic growth when more people are retired?”
Facts First: It is not even close to true that more people in China are retired than working – even today, let alone when Biden was vice president and the Chinese workforce was younger. China reported having about 775 million employed people at the end of 2019; China had a reported 254 million people aged 60 or above, the normal retirement-benefits age for men. “The working aged population has peaked and is now declining and retirees are growing rapidly, so the ratio of workers to retirees is becoming less favorable. But the ratio is still greater than 1,” said David Dollar, an expert on the Chinese population who is a Brookings Institution senior fellow.
Biden is right that China’s aging workforce poses a challenge to the country, but he botched the specifics. Even if you apply the usual dose of skepticism to official Chinese data, China is many decades away from having more retirees than workers.
“I think he misspoke. Probably meant that the working age population is now slowly shrinking, a trend that will continue for many years,” said Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and another expert on the Chinese economy.
The vaccine situation
Biden made a series of claims about the Covid-19 vaccine situation upon his January inauguration. He said early at the town hall that when “we came into office, there was only 50 million doses that were available.” Moments later, he said, “We got into office and found out the supply – there was no backlog. I mean, there was nothing in the refrigerator, figuratively and literally speaking, and there were 10 million doses a day that were available.” Soon after that, he told Cooper, “But when you and I talked last, we talked about – it’s one thing to have the vaccine, which we didn’t have when we came into office, but a vaccinator – how do you get the vaccine into someone’s arm?”
Facts First: Biden got at least one of these statistics wrong – in a way that made Trump look better, not worse, so Biden’s inaccuracy appeared accidental, but we’re noting it anyway. A White House official said that Biden’s claim about “10 million doses a day” being available when he took office was meant to be a reference to the 10 million doses a week that were being sent to states as of the second week of Biden’s term, up from 8.6 million a week when they took over.
The official said Biden’s claim about “50 million doses” being available when he took office was a reference to the number of doses that had been distributed to states as of the end of January. That was less than two weeks into his term, but he could have been clearer on the time frame.
Biden’s more dramatic claim here, that there was “nothing in the refrigerator” when he took office, has a solid factual basis, though Biden could again have been clearer about what he meant. The official said this was a reference to the fact that, as reported by the Washington Post in the week before Biden’s inauguration, there was no federal reserve of second doses available at the time. The Trump administration confirmed to the Post for a January 15 article that the contents of the stockpile had been released to states; then-Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the doses in the reserve could be shipped out “because we now have a consistent pace of production.” (It’s worth noting that Biden’s own transition team itself called for the release of second doses from the reserve.)
It’s also generally true that there were serious problems with vaccine supply just before Biden’s inauguration. Some states said that they had not been sent enough doses or that they faced major logistical issues in getting doses to residents.
Some of Biden’s Republican critics have focused on his claim that “we didn’t have” the vaccine when we came into office – suggesting that Biden was denying that a Covid-19 vaccine existed at all under President Donald Trump. Given the other comments Biden had just made, we think it’s clear in context that this was not his actual meaning.
A tax break for racehorse owners
Biden called for community college to be made free for all. He said this would cost $9 billion. Then he added: “We spend almost that money as a break for people who own racehorses.”
Facts First: There is no available evidence for the claim that the tax break for racehorse owners costs the government almost $9 billion. The White House declined to provide a source for the figure.
Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute think tank, noted that the government’s Joint Committee on Taxation does not show a revenue cost to the government from the tax provision, which allows for an accelerated depreciation schedule for certain racehorses. That does not mean the provision does not cost the government any money – it’s complicated – but it does mean the committee isn’t the source of Biden’s claim.
We can’t call the claim flat false because we don’t have definitive information ourselves. But it’s worth noting that it’s very much unclear that Biden has any source. And Gleckman is skeptical that is true, though he noted that Biden didn’t say what time period he was claiming the $9 billion tax break covered.
Biden’s $9 billion figure was, as of 2016-2017, roughly the national total for annual tuition and fees to two-year institutions, according to federal data.
The Proud Boys exchange
Biden said, “You may remember in one of my debates with the former President, I asked him to condemn the Proud Boys. He wouldn’t do it. He said, ‘Stand by. Stand ready.’ Or whatever the phrasing exactly was.”
Facts First: Biden, who conceded that he might not be correctly reciting Trump’s debate quote, was indeed off at least slightly. After debate moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump if he was willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups, and Biden interjected to mention the Proud Boys in particular, Trump said: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” So Biden got Trump’s “stand by” right, but he replaced Trump’s “stand back” with a “stand ready” – arguably a significant distinction.
We won’t call the claim flat false because Biden made clear he was uncertain.
Biden criticized Trump for slashing the number of refugees allowed into the US. He said: “For example, we used to allow refugees – 125,000 refugees in the United States in a yearly basis. It was as high as 250,000. Trump cut it to 5,000.”
Facts First: Biden’s comparison between pre-Trump and Trump-era refugee admissions is missing some key context. Biden was correct that Trump massively slashed the number of admissions, but this reduction was not as big as some viewers might have understood Biden to be claiming. That’s because, while Biden was correct that the US “used to” accept more than 125,000 refugees in some years, he did not make clear that this had not happened since the 1992 fiscal year.
In other words, Trump did not come into office with the US accepting 125,000 refugees, much less 250,000 refugees. Rather, in the last full fiscal year of President Barack Obama’s administration, the US accepted 84,994 refugees, just shy of Obama’s cap of 85,000. Obama raised the cap to 110,000 for his final partial fiscal year, 2017, but even that is lower than Biden said.
The US set a refugee cap of 231,700 for the 1980 fiscal year, so Biden was in the ballpark in his claim that the US has had a cap as high as “250,000.” That year, the US actually admitted 207,116 people.
Biden’s claim that “Trump cut it to 5,000” is reasonable but takes some explaining. Trump set the refugee admissions cap for the 2021 fiscal year at a record low of 15,000. Through the first four months of the fiscal year, the US had only accepted 1,400 – just about a 5,000-per-year pace.
Biden says he wants to raise the fiscal 2021 cap to 62,500 refugees. He has proposed a cap of 125,000 refugees for his first full fiscal year, 2022.