Fact-Checking Donald Trump's First Presidential Address to Congress
In his first presidential address to Congress, Trump claimed 94 million aren’t working and Obamacare is collapsing. Alan Yuhas sorts fact from fiction.
Jobs, taxes and business
“Since my election, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, Sprint, Softbank, Lockheed, Wal Mart, and many others have announced they will invest billions and billions of dollars in the United States and will create tens of thousands of new American jobs.”
Some of these corporations announced jobs and investment before the election, though Ford credited the president with its decision to create 700 jobs and make a $700m investment in Michigan. General Motors had committed $2.9bn and Walmart announced an expansion before any votes were cast, on the other hand, and several companies, including Chrysler, had previously agreed to create jobs.
“Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force.”
This is a grossly exaggerated claim that seems to rely on the roughly 94 million civilians who are 16 or older and not in the labor force: a figure that includes retired people, high school and college students, people with a disability, etc. The unemployment rate in January was 4.8%, or about 7.5 million people who are looking for work but can’t find it.
“Over 43 million people are now living in poverty, and over 43 million Americans are on food stamps.”
Trump is correct that about 43 million Americans are classified as living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau, after a small decline last year. He is also correct about 43 million people using food stamps, according to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That number reached as high as 47.6 million people in 2013, during the slow recovery.
Trump’s tax plan cuts taxes for all Americans but, by a wide margin, disproportionately helps the wealthiest Americans. According to a conservative thinktank, the Tax Foundation, his plan would save wealthy Americans millions of dollars and add $5.3tn to the national debt. Half of Trump’s tax cuts would go to the top 1% of earners, the thinktank estimates, and most families below the top 20% of earners would have income gains of less than 1%.“We will create massive tax relief for the middle class.”
“We’ve lost more than one-fourth of our manufacturing jobs since Nafta was approved, and we’ve lost 60,000 factories since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.”
According to a study by Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, slightly more than 10% of the manufacturing jobs lost since the 1970s were due to trade deals such as Nafta. The study estimated that 88% of factory jobs lost since the 1970s were eliminated by automation.
Economists still debate the effect of Nafta on jobs. In 2015, the Congressional Research Service wrote that the “net overall effect” was “relatively modest”. “Nafta did not cause the huge job losses feared by the critics or the large economic gains predicted by supporters.” A 2012 report by the OECD found that manufacturing jobs did flee the US after the deal was signed, but also noted the broader shift toward a service economy.
Trump is correct that China has benefited from trade deals, such as the “most favored nation” status that Bill Clinton renewed for the country. But it too has started to feel the changes of robots replacing humans in the workforce.
“Right now, American companies are taxed at one of the highest rates anywhere in the world.”
The US is not even in the top 30 highest-taxed nations in the world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD’s most recent data ranks the US 31st of 34 industrialized nations for tax revenue as a percentage of GDP – far behind Denmark, Britain, Germany and Luxembourg. The US ranks 17th for corporate tax revenue, and 19th for tax revenue per capita. The US is not the tax friendliest country in the world, according to the accounting firm KPMG, but it does rank in the top 10.
“We have the worst financial recovery in 65 years.”
This claim is true only because the 2008 financial crisis was the worst economic collapse in American history except for the Great Depression, when people starved to death and moved constantly in search of work. In 1933 25% of all workers and 37% of all non-farm workers were out of work. After the 2008 financial crisis, the US lost 8.7m jobs – in October 2010, unemployment reached a peak of 10%. The recession itself lasted 18 months, officially.
“In the last eight years, the past Administration has put on more new debt than nearly all other Presidents combined.”
Trump mostly has this right, except that he ignores key context: Barack Obama inherited the Oval Office while the economy was in freefall, and after his predecessor had signed a huge stimulus bill. Obama continued the recovery efforts of George W Bush, with Republican support from Congress, which ultimately controls the purse strings of government.
“Our trade deficit in goods with the world last year was nearly $800bn dollars.”
Trump has it almost correct that the trade deficit in goods alone neared $800bn; but he ignores the surplus in services, which reduces the deficit to about $502.3 bn, according to the Census Bureau. Economists say investment, something that Trump has welcomed, also contributes to a larger deficit.
“Obamacare is collapsing.”
The Affordable Care Act’s healthcare program does have problems, but it is not “collapsing” or in the much warned “death spiral” in which rising costs push healthy people out of the market, ever increasing fees and then pushing companies out as well. But healthcare premiums are increasing at varying rates around the country, on average by 22%, making an unstable market state-to-state. Rates were increasing before the law was enacted, however, and about 30 million people are enrolled in the program.
“By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone.”
The economic benefit of Trump’s immigration plans is uncertain. The disappearance of undocumented workers could push Americans into agriculture and construction jobs over the long term, for instance, but it could also sow chaos in those industries in the short term. A fair amount of research suggests that immigration is good for the economy, and some US industries rely heavily on employees with visas (such as tech) or undocumented workers (such as agriculture).
If enacted, Trump’s plans would have also cost taxpayers billions. Trump’s promised wall would cost Americans about $21.6bn – Mexico has flatly refused to pay for it; aggressive deportation plans could cost billions more, especially if Trump greatly expands the number of federal border agents and the number of private prison contractors.
“We’ve defended the borders of other nations while leaving our own border wide open for anyone to cross and for drugs to pour in and at a now unprecedented rate.”
The US’s borders are not “wide open for anyone to cross”, with sections of wall and fencing along the southern border, 21,000 Customs and Border Patrol agents, and a recent history of aggressive deportation. Barack Obama deported a record more than 2.5 million people since he took office, including a record 438,421 people in 2013. The US also has extremely strict vetting for visa applicants and refugees, forcing people to go through multiple rounds of interviews, background checks and medical screenings.
“Where proper vetting cannot occur … we cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to establish itself in America.”
Trump’s suggestion that the US’s vetting methods cannot account for the systems of countries abroad has flipped the procedure of vetting on its head. The system, among the most intensive screening process in the world for refugees, relies on US agencies to vet applicants, and not those of countries abroad. Refugees must pass multiple background checks and interviews with several agencies, as well as medical checks, fingerprint and photo screenings. The process takes 18-24 months.
“We’ve spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while our infrastructure at home has so badly crumbled.”
“America has spent approximately $6tn dollars in the Middle East, all this while our infrastructure at home is crumbling. With this $6tn dollars we could have rebuilt our country – twice.”
Trump does not specify what spending he’s referring to – though the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost an estimated $4.79tn, according to a study by Brown University researchers.
Trump is correct that US infrastructure, in general, is in dire need of repair and reconstruction. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers reported that the government needs to spend roughly $1.4 trillion over the next decade, or $3.6 trillion by 2020, to overcome the shortfall in infrastructure funding.
Trump’s claim of $6 trillion is misleading: it includes estimates of future spending, including veterans care for decades in the future.
“Jamiel’s 17-year-old son was viciously murdered by an illegal immigrant gang member, who had just been released from prison.”
Trump’s anecdote suggests a link between immigrants and crime, but anecdotes about individuals do not paint an accurate picture of about 11 million people, most of whom are not violent offenders or aggravated felons.
On the contrary, presidential commissions and recent academic research has general found no links between immigrants and crime or lower rates of crime correlated to cities with more immigrants compared to those with fewer immigrants.
“The murder rate in 2015 experienced its largest single-year increase in nearly half a century. In Chicago, more than 4,000 people were shot last year alone — and the murder rate so far this year has been even higher.”
Trump has accurately stated a statistic he often distorts. Last September, the FBI reported that murders and non-negligent manslaughter rose in the US by 10.8% in 2015, the largest single-year increase since 1971. That is not the same as saying there are more murders in the US than at any point since 1971: 15,696 murders were reported in 2015, down from 1991 high of 24,703. The murder rate declined 42% from 1993 to 2014, even though the population increased by a quarter.
Trump correctly cites Chicago’s number of shooting victims; the city has suffered a significant increase in gun violence in the last two years, though it has yet to reach the highs of the mid-1990s. While the year has started even more violently than 2016 did, fewer people have been killed compared with the same period in 2016, according to the Chicago Tribune, and police do not trust a few months’ worth of data to estimate a trend.