Fact Checker: Bernie Sanders talks income divide

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Introduction

“Median family income today is $4,000 less than in 1999.”

“The 15 richest Americans acquired more wealth in two years than the bottom 100 million people combined.”

Source of claim

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate

Analysis

In Sanders’s “Working Families” TV ad, which started airing in Eastern Iowa earlier this month, he says the median family income today is $4,000 less than in 1999.

The campaign pointed us to a September U.S. Census Bureau report showing the median U.S. household income for 2014 was $53,657, compared to $57,843 in 1999.

How is it possible we made less money today than in 1999? We didn’t. The median household income in 1999 was actually $42,000, according to a 2000 Census Bureau income report. But when you adjust the 1999 income to today’s dollars, as the September report does, we see the value of that 1999 income today is actually greater than what we’re making today.

But Sanders didn’t actually say household income in the ad, he said family income. A household can be one person, whereas a family, with more than one person, often makes more money. In 2014, the median family income was $68,426.

To determine whether an adjusted 1999 median family income was also lower than the 2014 family pay, we plugged the unadjusted number into a CPI inflation calculator from the Bureau of Labor & Statistics. This showed the $50,000 median family income of 1999 would be $71,229 with inflation. A difference of $2,803 between adjusted numbers for 1999 and 2014.

Sanders’s second ad, “Bottom 100 Million”, was a little trickier.

The campaign cited Forbes magazine, which lists each year’s wealthiest people, adding up the net worth by pricing all assets, including stakes in companies, real estate, arts, planes, etc. The Fact Checker can’t verify all of Forbes’s information, but since the magazine shows its methodology and uses the same standards every year, we are using it as a direct source.

The 15 richest Americans in March 2013, according to Forbes, were worth a combined $483.3 billion. The September 2015 list includes the same people — Bill Gates and Warren Buffett top the list — with a total net worth of $612.9 billion. The growth of their combined income in the last two years is $129.6 billion.

The bottom quartile of Americans in 2013 had a median net worth of less than $50, according to a Federal Reserve Bulletin from September 2014. This isn’t hard to imagine, especially for young people who don’t own houses and have student debt.

When you go up to the next quartile, the median net worth in 2013 was about $31,000 — down 9 percent from 2010. With about 316 million Americans in 2013, the median net worth for the bottom 100 million would fall into these lowest tiers.

So yeah, the Gateses and Buffetts of the nation acquired more wealth in recent years than the bottom 100 million, as Sanders claimed.

Conclusion

Both of these recent ads play to Sanders’s platform of fighting income inequality.

In “Working Families”, Sanders should have said household income instead of family income and was about $1,200 off, but we get the point.

Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson questions using Forbes research on America’s richest people because it can’t be independently verified. But Swenson points to a line graph in the 2014 Fed report showing wealth of the top 3 percent climbing since the late 1980s while the bottom 90 percent saw their wealth fall.

“That’s the story right there,” Swenson said.

We give Sanders an A overall.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/office holder or a national candidate/office holder about Iowa, or in advertisements that appear in our market. Claims must be independently verifiable. We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com. This Fact Checker was researched and written by Erin Jordan.

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