Sanders ad earns a foul for exaggerations on work hours and the ultra-rich

How we make the call

Truth Squad assigns five ratings to the political statements we review, in descending levels of accuracy:

No factual inaccuracies in the statement and no important information is missing
Mostly accurate
While the statement is largely accurate, it omits or exaggerates facts, or needs some clarification
Half accurate
Truths are interspersed with mistruths, or the speaker left out significant facts that render his/her remarks misleading in important respects
Mostly inaccurate
The major point or points made are untrue or misleading, even while some aspects of the claim may be accurate
The statement is false, or based on false underlying facts





Who: Bernie for America
What: 30-second TV ad, “Works for Us”; and 60-second ad, “Real Change”
The call: Foul

Launched on Feb. 19 in markets across Michigan, the two ads – largely positive in tone – push the populist economic message of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The themes are by now trademarks of his insurgent Democratic campaign, as he challenges a political and economic system Sanders says is rigged in favor of the extremely affluent. Among his prescriptions: higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, free public college tuition for all and – though not stated in these ads – universal health care. Coming a week after the March 1 Super Tuesday showdown and other Democratic caucuses and primaries in the days leading to March 8, Michigan’s primary could be a key battleground for Sanders as he strives to prove his message can resonate in his battle against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in states with a diverse electorate.

Relevant text of the ads

“While our people work longer hours for lower wages, almost all new income goes to the top 1 percent...My plan will make Wall Street banks and the ultra-rich pay their fair share of taxes...He’s (Sanders) supporting veterans...He's fighting for...tuition-free public colleges.”

Statements under review

“While our people work longer hours for lower wages, almost all new income goes to the top 1 percent."

The message is at the heart of Sanders' campaign, but both claims in the above statement are without strong backing. As first noted by Politifact, the highly regarded research arm of the Tampa Bay Times, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the average weekly work hours of nonsupervisory and production workers has actually gone down since the 1960s, while Gallup surveys indicate the hours worked by fulltime employees has remained essentially flat between 2001 and 2014. The Brookings Institute did find an increase in working hours among women in the middle 10 percent of families since the great recession, even as wages stayed flat.

Sanders’s statement that “almost all” new income has gone to the wealthiest 1 percent of wage earners is likewise an exaggeration. Though the senator is correct in noting the increased concentration of wealth among the very affluent.

In 2013, the Pew Research Center released a study of wealth inequality dating back to 1917. Built on analysis of IRS tax data by Emmanuel Saez, an economics professor at the University of California-Berkeley, it found the income disparity in 2007 between the top 1 percent and bottom 90 percent had reached levels not seen since 1928. Saez estimated the top 1 percent in 2012 accounted for nearly 23 percent of pretax income, compared with less than 50 percent for the bottom 90 percent. By comparison, the top 1 percent share of income in 1944 was 11.3 percent, while the bottom 90 percent received nearly 68 percent, levels that remained relatively constant for the following three decades.

A 2015 study by PEW concluded the U.S. middle class has been steadily losing ground over the past decades, finding that 49 percent of aggregate income went to upper-income households in 2014, up from 29 percent in 1970. The portion going to middle-income households, meanwhile, fell from 62 percent in 1970 to 43 percent in 2014.

So there is little question the wealthiest of Americans have benefitted disproportionately compared with average wage-earners. But that’s not what Sanders’s Michigan ad claims; it insists that one-percenters have captured “almost all” new income, again relying on economist Saez of Berkeley. It’s true that in January 2015, Saez released a paper indicating that the top 1 percent had taken in 91 percent of income gains in the first three years of recovery from the recession, which is close enough to support the “almost all” statement.

But Saez updated his data in June of last year, lowering the estimated gains of the most affluent to “only” 58 percent, a change that even Sanders acknowledged in September on the Senate floor. This updated estimate shows it’s still good to be rich, but that estimate does not come close to equating to “almost all” income gains.

And it begs the question: Why does Sanders gild the lily in his Michigan ad, when data supports his central argument that the ultra-rich are disproportionately benefitting in the nation’s economic recovery?

“My plan will make...the ultra rich pay their fair share of taxes.”

This tax shift is aimed at paying for Sanders's most ambitious proposal – a government-run system of universal health care. Among other proposals, Sanders wants to raise the top tax rates – now at 33 percent, 35 percent and 39.6 percent for households earning more than $250,000 – to 37 percent, 43 percent, 48 percent and 52 percent, the latter for those making more than $10 million. Sanders would also impose an additional 10 percent surtax on billionaires and repeal capital gains tax rates for couples making more than $250,000. Sanders pays for his healthcare plan in part by imposing a 2.2 percent “health care premium” tax, as well as a 6.2 percent payroll tax paid for by employers. And while middle-class taxpayers pay higher taxes under this plan, the Sanders campaign maintains those costs will be more than made up by savings in health care premiums.

But analysis by PolitiFact concluded the Sanders plan would need to cut costs by 42 percent to 47 percent for the math to work – savings deemed unrealistic by more than one economic analyst. Analysis by the Tax Foundation, a conservative independent tax policy research organization, concluded that Sanders’ plan would lower after-tax income by 10.5 percent for all taxpayers and by 17.9 percent for the wealthiest Americans. Recently, Sanders’s campaign has also come under assault by a few progressive economists for promising gains from his economic plan that, these progressives say, “cannot be supported by the economic evidence.”

Left unassessed, and unassessable, is whether Sanders’s plan for more heavily taxing the super rich would amount to this group paying its “fair” share. What constitutes the wealthy’s “fair share” is at the heart of the divergent economic worldviews of progressives and conservatives, and cannot be decided by Truth Squad.

"...supporting veterans."

Sanders' campaign website states: “
Sen. Sanders believes that just as planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war, so is taking care of the men and women who we sent off to fight the war.” It omits his role as chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs when reports emerged in late in 2013 that dozens of veterans died waiting for medical care in VA hospitals. One veterans official said Sanders “did not live up to his responsibilities” as chairman, while another said that Sanders was slow to hold hearings holding the VA accountable. “The House needed a partner in the Senate to help flesh out the problems at the VA, and unfortunately Bernie Sanders was not that partner,” said Dan Caldwell, vice president for political and legislative action for Concerned Veterans of America. To be sure, Sanders helped pass a $16 billion measure approved by the Senate in July 2014 aimed at improving veterans access to medical care. But Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said Sanders had for considerable time ignored the appeals of organizations like his to dig into the issue. “For far too long he was apologizing for the VA. He was refusing to acknowledge the severity. He was positioning it as a smaller issue than it was while veterans were dying waiting for care,” Rieckhoff stated. In May 2014, Sanders said in an interview: “Did the delays in care of these people on the secret waiting list actually cause these deaths? We don't know.”

"He's fighting for...tuition-free public colleges."

It's no surprise this proposal is especially well received among younger voters, many of whom are saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in college debt. This burden stems from rapidly escalating tuition rates, the causes of which are hotly debated. According to the State Higher Education Executive Officers, students paid $64 billion for tuition in 2014, compared with $21.5 billion in 2000. Sanders would pay for this plan – at an estimated cost of $75 billion a year – by imposing fees on stock trades and bonds and derivative transactions. But Sanders also expects states to pick up one third of the cost of the $75 billion plan, which could be an unrealistic assumption. And without that funding, the plan could fall apart. For example, 17 states have thus far rejected expansion of Medicaid, even though its cost is 100 percent funded by the federal government in its initial years, 90 percent after that. In order to fund free tuition, states would presumably have to cut somewhere else. “There's not a lot of extra money to spend on other programs,” said Brian Sigritz, state fiscal studies director for the National Association of State Budget Officers.

The call: Foul

Sanders points to an issue that is receiving national attention: The growing wealth and income gap in America. He is tapping into economic frustrations of workers as well as the young over stagnant wages and rising college debt. As his plans for free-tuition college and universal health care receive a closer look during the campaign, critics are raising important questions about how these plans will be funded and whether their fundamental financial assumptions are sound.

But the question of whether his economic plans hold up under rigorous analysis is for another day, most likely when Sanders and Clinton hold their debate in Flint two days before the Michigan primary. In these ads, Sanders is not vouching for the numbers in his tax plans. Rather, he is merely highlighting what he says he will do if he becomes president; namely, impose higher taxes on the wealthy and offer free tuition for students at public colleges. He is unquestionably fighting for both.

As for his support for veterans, the term “support” is so vague as to be almost meaningless, and thus difficult for Truth Squad to assess. What presidential candidate doesn’t support the troops, in some respect?

Where Sanders runs afoul of Truth Squad are his claims that people are working longer hours, and that the super rich are gobbling up “almost all” income gains. The weight of available evidence shows lack of support for both remarks. These are unforced errors, which could have been easily remedied with tweaks to the language that could more solidly support Sanders’s larger messages on income inequality and an economy that hasn’t been kind to the middle class. He did not make them.

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Thu, 02/25/2016 - 9:39am
I own my own business and work 60 hours a week to keep my middle class status. The new money is not going to me. This is the reality of the middle class and we are ready for a change.
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 9:48am
I am retired and living comfortably. I saved for 40 years to help when I retired. Most people today can't save like I was able to do. I would like input at what a family of 4 needs to gross in order to be considered middle class. I know it differs depending on where you live in Mi. Love to get feedback. Peace R.L.
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 9:51am
Typical attack by the established media on the one candidate who has shown a willingness to challenge the status quo. This is to be expected - Phil Powers is wealthy and Bernie's policies would reduce his wealth.
David Zeman
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 11:30am
Plubius, I appreciate your taking the time to comment on this Truth Squad. But just to clarify, Truth Squad does NOT address the willingness, or unwillingness, of any candidate to challenge the status quo, nor do we address the merits of any candidate's position. Our sole aim is to critically assess the factual assertions made in candidates' advertisements, messaging, appearances, speeches, etc. You will notice in this Truth Squad, for instance, we do not take a position on the senator's tax plans or legislative priorities should he win the presidency. What we do instead, as this Truth Squad make painfully clear, is examine the accuracy of his statements in these ads. With regard to the income gains of the 1 percent and the hours worked by American workers, the data does not align with his statements. Simple as that. What's particularly disturbing about the 1 percent claim is that Sanders himself acknowledged this claim, while once backed by evidence, was no longer accurate in a floor speech he gave in the Senate back in September. Given that, that he would continue to use this inaccurate language in a current Michigan ad is simply baffling, especially since he could have made the same point by using the word "most" rather than "almost all" and lost nothing. If you are looking at data or research that backs the senator's rhetoric on these points, Truth Squad would be happy to look at it. Lastly, Phil Power has no involvement in Truth Squad. These reports are conducted by Bridge's staff of nonpartisan journalists. Best, David Zeman Bridge Editor
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 10:17am
All of Bernie's promises are so tax laden I'm surprised people don't see this. When the young people graduate from the tuition free college, they will pay for it in higher taxes from their paychecks. Nothing is free. One way or another, they will repay it by higher taxes. His ability to fund such programs is a mystery when this nation is already severely in debt by our previous presidents. He will bankrupt the nation. If he wins, I will withdraw all my savings and find a country in international waters. He scares me.
Phil L.
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 10:47am
None of the comments thus far (including mine) speak to the substance of the article's intended purpose - Sen. Sanders' exaggerations.
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 11:52am
People are working longer hours . Part time workers may only work a maximum of thirty hours at one job but many of these part time workers are working two jobs to scrape by . This does not seem to be addressed in this article . As to health care costs for profit health care takes up a lot of the increase in costs .
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 3:50pm
Yes, precisely; many people are working longer hours at multiple jobs. I think that is what Sanders is referring to in his comments. And faulting him on the % of wealth going to the top 1% is petty; 51% or 88% to the top 1%, either is extremely unbalanced
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 11:58am
American households are working longer hours—hours they used to have for other activities such as leisure or family time. These longer hours are the main reason why household earnings increased over the last 35 years. Between 1979 and 2007, annual earnings of most households (those between the 20th and 80th percentiles of earnings) increased by 15.2 percent, rising to just under $60,000 by 2007. During this period, the average hourly wages of these households grew $1.05 per hour, while annual hours rose by 289 hours....the majority (61 percent) of the rise in annual earnings of middle-earning households was due to increasing annual hours and not increasing wages. Less than half (only 39 percent) of the increase in annual earnings was due to increasing hourly wages. For lower-earning households, increasing annual hours contributed nearly 75 percent to increases in annual earnings. Meanwhile, households at the top experienced the reverse phenomenon: for them, increasing hourly earnings explained over 90 percent of rising annual earnings. So that there is no concern about cherry-picking endpoints, it’s useful to note that if we examine the full period (1979–2013), the meager rise in annual earnings for moderate-earning households is driven even more by increasing hours, as opposed to increasing hourly wages. During this period, increasing hours contributed 74 percent to annual middle-earning household earnings, while hourly earnings only contributed the remaining 26 percent.
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 12:03pm
Gallup has consistently found from its surveys that full-time employees work, on average, seven hours longer than their 40-hour work week. Nonetheless, Gallup data from most of this century show no significant change in the work week of full-time employees from 2001 through 2014 and a decline in part-time hours, from 35.4 hours in 2001-02 to 25.9 hours for 2013-14. Neither measure shows hours increased, as Sanders claimed. However, it may be a different story if you look at families instead of individuals. The Sanders campaign referred us to a Washington Post article that references a 2011 Brookings Institution study. When Brookings looked at data through 2009 for the middle 10 percent of families, it concluded that income had increased by 23 percent since 1975. But that's not because wages had increased. It's because family members are working 26 percent more hours. Virtually all of that increase was seen among the mother, part of an effort to maintain the standard of living. "The numbers suggest that the typical American family is earning more, but almost entirely because parents are working more — not because they are earning more per hour," the report says. Are Americans really earning lower wages? We called up quarterly data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, specifically the annual averages for median, usual, weekly earnings for full-time wage and salary workers. We looked from 1980 through 2015. The numbers are adjusted for inflation in 1982-84 dollars. Over those 35 years, earnings rose from $318 per week to $342 per week, a 7.5 percent increase. If you want to create a decrease, you have to start tracking at 2009 (when weekly earnings hit about $345) or go back to early 1973, when hourly wages reached a peak. Again, timing is everything. As Pew's Drew DeSilver noted in October, "after adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power as it did in 1979, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then." But it's not the same for all income groups. Since 2000, the people in the lowest-paying jobs — the bottom 25 percent — have seen their weekly wages fall by 3 percent while the people at the top have seen a 9.7 percent rise.
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 12:07pm
In his ad, Sanders asserts that, "While our people work longer hours for lower wages, almost all new income goes to the top 1 percent." The question of hours is a mixed bag. The individual data suggest that people work the same or fewer hours. But family data analyzed by Brookings and only showing a limited slice of the population show that mothers are working longer hours. Wages have, in general, been going up, although barely at all compared to the gains seen among the rich. And while the super-rich may have accumulated 91 percent of the new wealth from 2009 to 2013 according to the economist Sanders has been relying on, the latest analysis shows that the ratio is now 58 percent since 2009, 55 percent since 1993. That's a huge amount of new income for just 1 percent of the population, but it's a stretch to say that it's "almost all." On balance, we rate his statement Half True. (or in the parlance of The Bridge Truth Sqaud "FOUL"... sigh)
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 2:41pm
Bridge, non partisan. I think not. Your truth meter is missing the republican categories. nit picking Bernie is a dead give away.
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 5:34pm
My husband and I are retired, have health care through Medicare and a very expensive past employer plan so are better off than the young people, veterans, and those serving multiple tours in the services. Looking seriously at Bernie Sanders promises, even though a Republican congress will never allow him to do any of them, they are unfortunately "pie in the sky". Free college sounds wonderful but there is no way to pay the cost no matter how many billionaires pay more in taxes, nor is totally free health care any possibility. Then there are the threats in the world. We can't afford a president with no background in foreign policy nor, in fact, the Republican candidates who are promising to bomb Isis into oblivion no matter the number of civilian casualties. If Bernie couldn't be more "there" for the veterans relying on the VA when they needed it, we sure don't need him for our president.
Fri, 02/26/2016 - 8:28am
The working poor who hold three jobs get the worst of it from every direction. Anyone who clerks at a gas station, stocks shelves at a retail outlet, then delivers whatever newspapers are left to deliver . . . is yes, among a monster cohort who ARE working more hours for less money. The underemployed, underpaid under class are the struggling flotsam of technological progress and globalization, the great challenge of our time. It's systemic, fundamental, and not solvable by promising a free community college education for all -- or, if you are Bernie, a free four-year degree for all. Bernie can't play for his plan, and it won't solve the problem . . . but it's better than pretending our great problem does not exist. Despite 24/7 news and two-a-week candidate debates in an interminable campaign, how many times have you heard the phrase "exponential technological change and a shrinking need for workers of any kind"? It dwarfs every other problem we can do anything about, other than destroying our planet. Somebody fact-check that one.
Chuck Fellows
Fri, 02/26/2016 - 11:10am
A "foul", "foul". This fails to contextualize the data, cherry picks sound bytes to fit a narrative, creating an opinion. It is this kind of "thick of thin thinking" that leads to mistrust of media.What about age demographics, number of two job individuals, shift from manufacturing to service economy, impact of medicare negotiations on drug prices, cross border purchase of drugs, medicare administrative processes that reduce overhead by an estimated 11 % ... on and on it goes. The foul designation fails the primary test for data, data absent context is meaningless - this report leans toward partisan hyperbole. The US economy has had a major shift from a maker to a server. Michigan is still a maker but has been impacted by the increase in health care workers and other service categories with compensation packages lower than present in manufacturing. It may be a cultural meme but there are extreme obscenities present in income distribution. Senator Sanders is pointing out that we have a problem in the areas of income distribution, health care cost and quality. We have a financial system that is dysfunctional at best. We have a capitalist system out of balance, leaning far to heavily to "Atlas Shrugged" and unrestrained free market philosophies - that history demonstrates do not work. If you look carefully at what he proposes in health care, you will see that there are trillions of dollars of waste (a retail pill at $3.14 -t $50. each in hospital, inefficient medical device manufacturers, administrative overheads from 15% to 25%). America's largest employer, WalMart, pays at levels that require public subsidies for their employees to survive, etc. The studies discrediting his proposals do not consider that OECD countries provide health care to all at a lower cost (up to 40%) and higher quality overall than is available to a majority of the American public, millions without any coverage at all. Bridge and its readers may consider Senator Sanders proposals radical. Engaging in false trillion dollar wars wasn't? Giving away seniors' incomes to the drug companies isn't? Rewarding the financial industries in the billions isn't? Context is everything.
Fri, 02/26/2016 - 11:20am
The lessons I glean from Bernie and Hillary: It doesn't matter what you do or what choices you make, you are owed an above average paying really fun job! (However you want to define it). Student debt, educational choices, where you choose to live, how many kids (forget having a husband), have no bearing on anything , again you are owed! Regulatory employment costs, cost of mandated benefits, tecnological alternatives, and all that boring accounting stuff be damned you deserve $12 or $15 per hour and only someone from the 1% would disagree but they are greedy. Please let me know when I can start helping in the campaign, but again, It must be doing something and located in a place that stirs my soul and pays a living wage.
Sun, 02/28/2016 - 2:29pm
Amen! I would add that while there are hard-working people who for many reasons are struggling economically, there are also a host of “workers” who hold low-wage, part-time jobs because that is all they can get when they do not understand the need to show up on time, work all of your scheduled shift, actually work rather than spend time gossiping, texting, and taking breaks, etc. In my experience, those who work hard, have a good work ethic, and are willing to grow their skills will find that there are opportunities for them. I know young people, including several who do not have college degrees, who are advancing to managerial positions or who have good-paying jobs with benefits in the trades, because they are good employees who understand that their paycheck is the reward for an honest day’s work, not an entitlement. Yes, it is harder than it was when I was starting out, but there are a lot of people who will never make it into the middle class because of the choices they make. Choices like having children when you can barely support yourself, buying that new truck and toys that you don’t need or can’t afford, “investing” your paycheck at the casino, etc., are not forced upon people by the 1 percent.
Sun, 02/28/2016 - 8:15am
This analysis almost reads like satire. Quite obviously biased and selectively nitpicking, just like...well, the worst of the ads you're "analyzing." Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich just endorsed Sanders. I suggest reading his work and viewing his videos re: the topics discussed in the ad. You'll find excellent explanations of exactly what this ad refers to in terms of income and inequality. From an actual economist. Maybe Bridge could stick to reviewing ads for state and local candidates. I appreciate Bridge, but it's a delicate task, this "non-partisan" pledge. Your list of board members leans heavily establishment, wealthy and corporate. This oddly petty "foul" suggests their viewpoint may have held sway.