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Fact-checking Biden’s first joint address to Congress

In his first joint address to Congress, President Joe Biden struck an optimistic tone, speaking for more than an hour and pushing his expansive vision of building America “back better” by touting his vast infrastructure plan and praising the progress the country has made against Covid-19.

While Biden’s speech was, for the most part, factually accurate there were a few incorrect claims — notably at times when he went off script — and some that require context and explanation.

Here’s a look at the facts:

Biden claims he’s traveled 17,000 miles with Xi

Biden repeated a claim he has made before about his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He said Secretary of State Antony Blinken “can tell you that I spent a lot of time with President Xi — traveled over 17,000 miles with him.”

Facts First: This is false. Biden has not traveled anywhere close to 17,000 miles “with” Xi, as Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler and then CNN noted in fact checks in February. While Biden could accurately say that he has spent many hours and held many meetings with Xi — they spent time together in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015 — Kessler noted that the two leaders often did not even travel parallel routes to their gatherings, let alone physically travel together. The only apparent way to get Biden’s mileage past 17,000, Kessler found, is to add the length of his flights between Washington and Beijing, during which, obviously, Xi was not with him.

A White House official told CNN that Biden was making “a reference to the total travel back and forth — both internally in the US and China, and as well as internationally — for meetings they held together. Some travel was in parallel, some was separately to joint destinations.” But that is very different from traveling “with” Xi, especially in the context of a point about how familiar he is with Xi.

-Daniel Dale

The undocumented population

Biden, pushing Congress to approve a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, said there are “over 11 million undocumented folks; the vast majority … here overstaying visas.” (It wasn’t entirely clear if Biden said “the vast majority are here overstaying visas” or “the vast majority of here overstaying visas.”)

Facts First: Biden’s claim is false. Experts say it is not true even that the majority of the undocumented population of approximately 11 million is made up of visa-overstayers, let alone a “vast majority.” Biden would have been correct had he claimed that studies suggest the majority of newly undocumented people are visa-overstayers, but the claim is not true of the overall undocumented population.

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. But Donald Kerwin, executive director of that New York think tank, told CNN in February that, among the total undocumented population, people who crossed illegally still outnumber people who overstayed their visa.

Similarly, Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications for the Migration Policy Institute think tank, told CNN in February 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.”

After Biden’s speech, immigration policy consultant Cris Ramón told CNN that “between 1982 and 2005, a vast majority of the undocumented came through the U.S.-Mexico border, mostly individuals circumventing Border Patrol to seek work in the United States.” Visa-overstayers subsequently became the primary group of new entrants into the undocumented population, Ramón said, but “Biden basically told us the second part of a two-story play without mentioning the first half that’s incredibly important to understanding how we got here in the first place.”

It’s worth noting that we do not yet have comprehensive studies on the period from 2018 to the present.

-Daniel Dale

Biden’s infrastructure plan and the economy

President Biden said that “independent experts estimate the American Jobs Plan will add millions of jobs and trillions of dollars to economic growth in years to come.”

Facts First: It’s true that some experts say the plan could create millions of jobs, but analysts differ on how much economic growth it could spur.

The American Jobs Plan proposes spending $2 trillion on improving the nation’s infrastructure and paying for it by hiking corporate taxes. Some independent analysts say it will have a positive effect on jobs and the economy — but the magnitude of its effect will depend on the size and structure of the package that Congress ultimately passes.

Moody’s Analytics found that the proposal would create about 2.7 million jobs by the end of 2030. A separate report from S&P Global noted that the jobs created by the plan could be temporary. It estimated that in the short term, $2.1 trillion in infrastructure spending could create 2.3 million jobs, but that as infrastructure projects are completed these jobs would taper off and the net jobs added from the proposal would be 713,000 by 2029.

Moody’s Analytics projects that the infrastructure plan will result in a higher GDP over the next decade. It predicts GDP will grow by 3.8% in 2024, compared with 2.2% if the plan fails to become law.

S&P Global also found that that much infrastructure spending would boost the economy over the next decade adding $5.7 trillion over that time period. It estimated that GDP growth will be lifted to 2.2% from 1.7% over the next 10 years.

But a different analysis from the Penn Wharton Budget Model took a longer-term view and found that the infrastructure proposal would actually end up decreasing GDP by 0.8% in 2050.

-Katie Lobosco and Tami Luhby

Biden’s infrastructure plan and education

In arguing that his infrastructure plan would create well-paying jobs for Americans, President Biden said that “Nearly 90% of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan don’t require a college degree. 75% don’t require an associate’s degree.”

Facts First: While it’s impossible to fact check the impact of a plan that hasn’t even passed Congress, a forecast from Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce supports these figures depending on how “college degree” is defined. The study estimates that 85% of the jobs from the infrastructure plan would be filled by those without a bachelor’s degree, while 75% of the jobs would be filled by those without an associate’s degree, according to the estimate.

The forecast predicts that 16% of the jobs could go to those with education levels below graduating high school, 37% could go to those with a high school diploma, 14% to those with some college education but no degree, 8% to those with a postsecondary vocational certificate and 10% to those with an associate’s degree.

Many of these jobs would be temporary, as a study from S&P Global notes, estimating that the majority of jobs would taper off by 2029 as infrastructure projects are completed. It’s important to note too that studies and estimates around the infrastructure plan vary widely.

Again, this is just one forecast of the potential effects of a plan not yet passed by Congress.

-Holmes Lybrand

Biden on his work on root causes of migration as vice president

President Biden said, “When I was vice president, the President asked me to focus on providing help needed to address the root causes of migration, and it helped keep people in their own countries instead of being forced to leave. The plan was working. But the last administration decided it was not worth it.”

Facts First: Biden didn’t specify the program, but it’s true that the Obama administration set up a program to provide safer pathways to the United States that was later terminated by then-President Trump.

During his tenure as vice president, Biden led diplomatic efforts in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador after a growing number of unaccompanied minors from those countries began arriving in the US in 2014. The Central American Minors program was among the efforts.

The program allowed children under the age of 21 with parents lawfully living in the US to seek entry into the country from their places of origin if they did not qualify for refugee protections but were still at risk of harm. It served as an alternative for parents who might otherwise turn to smugglers to bring their children to the US illegally. While it might not have helped “keep people in their own countries,” it was intended to keep them from being forced to try illegal, and dangerous, methods of immigration.

There are mixed reviews on whether the program “was working,” as Biden said, given the urgent situations some children were facing. In 2017, the Trump administration ended the program, making it difficult to assess its effectiveness since it had only been in place for a limited period of time.

The Biden administration has since announced it is restarting the program.

-Priscilla Alvarez

Seniors vaccinated under President Biden

Biden said that “When I was sworn in on January 20th, less than 1% of the seniors in America were fully vaccinated against COVID-19. 100 days later, nearly 70% of seniors in America over 65 are protected, fully protected.”

Facts First: While the numbers on vaccinated seniors that Biden cites are largely true, and his administration has made great strides in vaccinating Americans, Biden has benefitted from timing. When he took office in January, vaccines had only just been made available and some seniors were only newly eligible.

About 68% of people 65 and older are currently fully vaccinated, according to statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While it is true that less than 1% of seniors had been fully vaccinated when Biden took office, that’s in part due to the fact that two of the Covid-19 vaccines had been authorized by the US Food and Drug Administration for only a little more than a month.

In the US, the first person received a vaccination dose outside of a clinical trial on December 14 and Biden took office a little more than five weeks later on January 20. The recommended time between the first and second shot of the Moderna vaccine is 28 days and 21 days for the Pfizer vaccine.

After health care workers and those people who lived in long-term care facilities, people over the age of 75 were given top priority for vaccinations.

-Jen Christensen and Holmes Lybrand

Biden’s claims about women leaving the workforce

Biden said that 2 million women dropped out of America’s labor force during the pandemic, often “because they couldn’t get the care they need for their family, their children,” he added.

Facts First: Biden is actually understating the number of women who left the labor force during the pandemic.

Seasonally adjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that as of March 2021, there were 2.6 million fewer women in the labor force compared to February 2020, before Covid-19 took its toll on the economy. The government defines people who aren’t in the labor force as unemployed and not actively looking for a job.

Women have been hit harder by the pandemic in part because they account for a disproportionate share of workers in sectors that have been most affected by the pandemic, including hospitality and leisure.

In September of last year, when school started again after the summer and many children needed help distance learning, the number of women leaving the workforce was particularly high.

The employment-population ratio for America’s women stood at 52.8% in March, down from 55.8% before the pandemic but up from its low during the first wave of the pandemic when the economy ground to a halt.

-Anneken Tappe

Cutting child poverty in half

Ticking off the litany of ways he says his $1.9 trillion relief package will help struggling Americans, President Biden once again touted how much it will help poor children.

“And, maybe most importantly, thanks to the American Rescue Plan, we’re on track to cut child poverty in America in half this year,” he said.

Facts First: While it’s impossible to fact check a projection, it’s true that at least two independent estimates found that the package’s key measures are expected to reduce the share of children in poverty by more than half. But there’s one big catch. The benefits are all temporary — a mix of one-time infusions and assistance that last no longer than a year. (Biden is seeking to extend or make permanent several of these key relief provisions as part of the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan that he proposed in his address on Wednesday.)

Researchers from both Columbia University and the Urban Institute found that the relief plan will slash the children’s poverty rate by more than half, in addition to cutting the overall poverty rate by about a third.

One of the most consequential provisions is the expansion of the child tax credit, which will be in effect for all of 2021 before expiring. Families can receive a credit of $3,600 for each child under 6 and $3,000 for each one under age 18, an increase from up to $2,000 per child under age 17.

The enhanced portion of the credit is available for single parents with annual incomes up to $75,000, heads of household earning up to $112.500 and joint filers making up to $150,000 a year.

The key change is that the tax credit becomes fully refundable so that more low-income parents could take advantage of it. Until now, it has only been partially refundable — leaving more than 20 million children unable to get the full credit because their families’ incomes are too low.

Plus, households can receive the half the credit on a monthly basis, from July through December, rather than as a lump sum once a year. The other half will be claimed on their 2021 tax returns.

By itself, this measure could cut child poverty nearly in half, according to Christopher Wimer, co-director of the Center on Poverty & Social Policy at Columbia University.

The American Families Plan would extend the enhanced child tax credit through 2025 and permanently make it fully refundable.

-Tami Luhby

Biden’s efforts to reduce hunger

Noting that cars have lined up for miles at food pantries during the pandemic, President Joe Biden credited the federal food aid in his $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package with reducing hunger in the country.

“That’s why the rescue plan is delivering food and nutrition assistance to millions of Americans facing hunger and hunger is down sharply already,” he said.

Facts First: It’s true that hunger dropped during March, by at least one measure, though it’s more likely due to the rescue package’s $1,400 stimulus checks than to its nutrition assistance measures.

The share of adults whose household didn’t have enough to eat sometimes or often in the previous seven days dropped to 8.8% in the latter part of March, down from 10.7% in the earlier half of the month, according to the most recent Census data compiled by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The American Rescue Plan, which Biden signed on March 11, provided a third round of direct payments that went out more quickly. The center cited the stimulus checks, along with other provisions in the relief package, as well as earlier relief bills and the economic recovery.

The plan’s nutrition measures will not have as immediate an effect. They primarily extended a 15% increase in food stamp benefits through September, instead of having it expire at the end of June, and allowed states to continue the Pandemic-EBT, which provides families whose children’s schools are closed with funding to replace free- and reduced-price meals the kids would have received, through the summer.

-Tami Luhby

Biden on Medicare drug prices

While President Joe Biden irked many Democratic lawmakers by not including a measure to reduce drug prices in his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, he did mention the issue during his address.

“Let’s give Medicare the power to save hundreds of billions of dollars by negotiating lower drug prescription prices,” he said.

Facts First: Just how much allowing Medicare to negotiate would actually lower drug prices has long been contested. It would depend on how the program is set up.

Democrats have fought for years to let Medicare negotiate drug prices, often pointing to the fact that costs are much lower in other countries with more government involvement in price setting. Republicans specifically barred such negotiations when the GOP-controlled Congress passed a Medicare prescription drug benefit in 2003, and the powerful drug industry lobby has successfully thwarted any attempts to revise the law.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has said in several reports that providing the Health and Human Services secretary with negotiating power would likely have “a negligible effect on federal spending.”

“Negotiation is likely to be effective only if it is accompanied by some source of pressure on drug manufacturers to secure price concessions,” the CBO wrote in 2019. “In the absence of such pressure, the Secretary’s ability to issue credible threats or take other actions in an effort to obtain significant discounts would be limited.”

The CBO has questioned whether the secretary would be willing to exclude certain drugs or impose limitations on coverage to pressure manufacturers to lower prices.

-Tami Luhby

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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