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VERIFY: Fact-checking the South Carolina Democratic debate

Our VERIFY team fact-checked what the candidates said during the Democratic debate in South Carolina.

With Super Tuesday just one week away, seven Democrats running for president faced off on the debate stage Tuesday night in Charleston, South Carolina.

It was the tenth debate for Democrats and came just four days before South Carolina residents vote and get their say for who should take on President Donald Trump this fall. 

Our VERIFY researchers fact-checked what all the candidates had to say during Tuesday's debate. 

CLAIM: Former Vice President Joe Biden claimed that Senator Bernie Sanders voted against the Brady gun control bill at least five times. 

This claim is VERIFIED, but needs context. The Brady Bill required prospective handgun buyers to wait five business days for authorities to conduct a background check. 

According to voting records on Congress.gov, before the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act became a law on November 30, 1993, Congress voted on several iterations of the bill in 1991 and 1993. 

Sanders voted against an iteration of the Brady bill in 1991, and an omnibus bill on crime control that included the Brady bill in 1991. Sanders voted no on the Brady bill again in 1993--he voted no on three separate motions on the bill including amendments on the bill  

Sources: HR 7,  HR 3371, HR 1025 

- Eliana Block 

CLAIM: Bernie Sanders claimed real wages went up less than 1% last year and half of Americans are living pay check to paycheck.

Both claims are true. From January 2019 to January 2020, real average hourly earnings – wages adjusted for inflation --increased by 0.6%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Two recent surveys, including one released last week show between 49% and 59% of Americans live paycheck to pay check.

Sources: Bureau of Labor data, Paycheck to paycheck surveys

- Tina Macias 

CLAIM: Former mayor Pete Buttigieg said, “When I was born, there was no difference in your life expectancy if you were born in a rural area or born in a city. Now the gap is the biggest we’ve seen in a generation…”

This claim is exaggerated, but does closely reflect recent studies on the topic.

A 2017 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, titled “Inequalities in Life Expectancy Among US Counties,” compared the life expectancy rates in the U.S. from 1980 through 2014. They broke the data down further using county life expectancy rates to get estimates of the life expectancy in rural communities vs. those in urban communities.

The study did find a steady increase in inequality between rural and urban life expectancy rates starting right around 1982, the year Buttigieg was born. By 2014, the study found a high inequality rate of nearly 11 years difference between the regions. In 1982, the difference was about 8 years. 

So, Buttigieg was wrong that “there was no difference” when he was born, but he is correct that the gap is the largest it’s been.

Sources: Inequalities in Life Expectancy Among US Counties (1980 to 2014), AHRQ “National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report:”, “Associations between Urban Sprawl and Life Expectancy in the United States”

- Jason Puckett 

CLAIM: Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden argued about whether or not former President Barack Obama praised Fidel Castro.

Sanders has recently come under fire for comments he made to "60 Minutes," praising Fidel Castro's literacy program in Cuba while also denouncing the authoritarian leader. 

When former Vice President Joe Biden brought up those comments during Tuesday's debate, the two argued over whether former President Obama made similar remarks.    

The comments in question were made by Obama in 2016 to the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative Town Hall in Argentina. At one point in the speech, he talked about the divisions between capitalism and communism.

“You don't have to worry about whether it neatly fits into socialist theory or capitalist theory -- you should just decide what works. And I said this to President Castro in Cuba. I said, look, you've made great progress in educating young people. Every child in Cuba gets a basic education -- that's a huge improvement from where it was. Medical care -- the life expectancy of Cubans is equivalent to the United States, despite it being a very poor country, because they have access to health care. That's a huge achievement. They should be congratulated. But you drive around Havana and you say this economy is not working.  It looks like it did in the 1950s.  And so you have to be practical in asking yourself how can you achieve the goals of equality and inclusion, but also recognize that the market system produces a lot of wealth and goods and services. And it also gives individuals freedom because they have initiative.”

Now we can't verify someone's intent and it's not clear if Obama intended to praise Fidel Castro or not. But he did speak about the increases to the countries literacy rates during his rule.

Sources: White House transcript and speech video  

CLAIM: Tom Steyer said he's worked to end the use of private prisons in his home state of California and they've "ended it." 

After Vice President Joe Biden criticized Tom Steyer's investments in private privates while running a hedge found he founded, Steyer, said he's worked and ended the use of private prisons in California. 

This claim is misleading. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill No. 32 into law, which prohibits the state’s department of corrections from entering “a contract with a private, for-profit prison facility located in or outside the state to provide housing for state prison inmates” after Jan. 1, 2020. 

However, the law notes that current for-profit prisons are allowed to continue housing state prisoners until Jan. 1, 2028. It would also prohibit the use of private detention facilities, with certain exceptions.

The law doesn’t prohibit the department of corrections from renewing or extending a contract with a for-profit prison to house state prisoners “in order to comply with any court-ordered population cap.”

Source: Assembly Bill No. 32

- Matt Keyser 

CLAIM: Did Biden write the Boyfriend loophole?

No, Biden did not write the legislation to close the so-called "boyfriend loophole." It was introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

During a back-and-forth between the two candidates, Joe Biden seemed to take credit for legislation closing the "boyfriend loophole." He eventually conceded the point, then correctly pointed out that the loophole has not been eliminated in law.

Biden wrote the original legislation that became the Violence Against Women Act, which prohibits certain convicted domestic abusers from purchasing guns. These include spouses of victims, parents or guardians of victims or those who have a child with the victim. 

Those covered by Biden's legislation do not include boyfriends, stalkers or dating partners. Sen. Amy Klobuchar sponsored the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act, which proposed closing that loophole. It passed in the House but is opposed by the National Rifle Association and has been hung up in the Senate. 

Sources: The Library of Congress, Congress.gov

- Nicole Zibelman 

CLAIM: While talking about Russian interference in the 2016 election, Biden said that the U.S. had plenty of evidence and that “17 intelligence agencies said he (Putin) did it." 

The claim that 17 intelligence agencies reported Russian interference is true. However, those 17 agencies did not all personally name Vladimir Putin.

The U.S. Intelligence Community is made up of 17 agencies. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence speaks on behalf of the group. In 2016, DNI James Clapper released a document saying that they were “confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations.”

The initial report has been removed. We’ve posted the archived version below.

Source: 2016 report by DNI

- Jason Puckett 

CLAIM: Joe Biden said that "150 million people have been killed since 2007 when Bernie voted to exempt the gun manufacturers from liability."

There are several big aspects to this claim that Biden got wrong. 

First, it is true that Sanders voted while in the House of Representatives for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which prohibits civil liability action against gun manufacturers. But that vote happened in 2005, not 2007 as Biden claimed. 

Biden, who was in the Senate at the time, voted against it.

The former vice president also grossly overstated the number of gun deaths since 2007. From 2007 to 2018, the number of firearm deaths in the U.S. was 413,403, according to an analysis of CDC data. 

Sources: House of Representatives Roll Call, Senate Roll Call, CDC data from 2007-2017

- Eliana Block, Evan Koslof, Tina Macias

CLAIM: Senator Bernie Sanders claims the United States has more people in jail than any other country on Earth including China.

According to the data available to the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research, this claim is true. However, the ICPR notes that there is an unknown number of people in pre-trial detention and other forms of detention in China.

The ICPR reports the U.S. has 2.1 million prisoners, more than any other nation. 

The countries next on the list are China at 1.7 million, Brazil at 770,000, Russia at 520,000 and India at 460,000. In the 2018 version of the group's detailed report, they said the United States also had the highest prison population rate at 655 per 100,000. The next highest country was El Salvador with 604 per 100,000.

Sources: ICPR Monthly Data, ICPR World Prison Population List 2018

- TJ Spry 

CLAIM: Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg said: “What is a radical idea is completely eliminating private insurance….no industrial country has gone that far...even in Denmark, they have not abolished the possibility of private insurance.”

The claim that no industrial country has eliminated private insurance is true.

The Commonwealth Fund compiled a detailed list of healthcare systems by country. Their data shows that while most other countries have some form of “universal healthcare,” they all still have some sort of private healthcare as well.

Some countries require citizens to enroll in private insurance programs. The Netherlands and Israel both do this. They have strict laws governing the required benefits and costs.

Other countries like Canada and France have systems where private insurers can be used to supplement public health programs. Non-covered benefits like vision and prescription benefits can be covered under separately purchased private systems.

Other countries like England have full coverage for all, but still allow private insurance and healthcare options. People who want to skip certain wait-lines or want more control to see certain specialists can have these plans as secondary options.

Bottom line, Buttigieg is correct that Medicare-for-all plans that would completely eliminate private health options would be doing something no other country has done.

Source: “International Health Care System Profiles” by The Commonwealth Fund

- Jason Puckett 

CLAIM: Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg claimed that 20 states now have universal background checks.

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, a non-profit organization advocating for stricter gun control laws, 21 states plus the District of Columbia require criminal background checks for gun sales by unlicensed sellers. 

Bloomberg helped found the group in 2014 and has personally pledged $50 million to support its efforts. 

Everytown says six of these states only require universal background checks for handguns rather than all firearms.

Source: Everytown for Gun Safety

- TJ Spry 

CLAIM: Senator Bernie Sanders claimed 87 million Americans have no health insurance or are under-insured and said 500,000 people tonight are sleeping out on the street, including veterans. 

These are two claims Senator Sanders often brings up during Democratic debates and both are VERIFIED. 

When it comes to insurance, a biennial survey by the Commonwealth Fund found in 2019 that while the number of uninsured Americans had declined since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, more people were becoming "underinsured." The report stated 45% of U.S. adults between the ages of 18 to 64, an estimated 87 million Americans, are inadequately insured.  

When referring to the total homeless population of the United States, this claim is VERIFIED. The numbers are smaller for homeless people without shelter.

There were over 553,000 homeless Americans on a single night in January of 2018, which was when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development made their most recent estimates. The HUD estimates homeless populations based on an average of single night snapshots in January of each year. 

Among those 552,000 individuals, 358,000 of them spent the night in sheltered locations and 194,000 were unsheltered.

Additionally, the VA found there were 37,085 veterans experiencing homelessness in January 2019. The next data set for January 2020 has yet to be released.

Sources: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Commonwealth Fund's Biennial Health Insurance Survey, VA data  

CLAIM: Mike Bloomberg claimed that during his time as mayor, stop and frisk stops decreased by 95%.

That claim is misleading. Numbers did decrease under Bloomberg, but only after a rise of stops during his term.

NYPD arrest data show that during Bloomberg’s first 10 years as mayor, stop and frisk numbers increased by about 600% to a peak of 686,000 in 2011.
By the time Bloomberg left office in 2013, that number dropped dramatically to 192,000. The 95% number can only be made by comparing the quarterly high point in early 2012 (203,500) with the last quarter of 2013 (12,485). The bottom line here is that there were more stop and frisk incidents every year under Bloomberg than there were in the year before he took office as mayor.

Source: NYPD Stop and Frisk Data 

- Jason Puckett 

CLAIM: Sen. Elizabeth Warren questioned Mayor Bloomberg by asking: "Who funded Lindsay Graham’s campaign for re-election last time? It was Mayor Bloomberg."

Mayor Bloomberg did donate to a Super PAC that spent 100's of thousands of dollars supporting Senator LIndsey Graham. But we cannot verify if he individually donated to Sen. Graham

In 2014, Bloomberg Inc. donated $250,000 to “West Main Street Values,” a Super PAC that supported Republican candidates during the 2014 election cycle.

Data kept by opensecrets.org shows that Bloomberg made that $250,000 contribution to “West Main Street Values.” The Super PAC then spent a total of $272,381 in support of Senator Lindsey Graham. 

It’s worth noting that by definition, a Super PAC is considered an independent political action committee that can raise unlimited amounts of money, but is not allowed to directly coordinate with a candidate.

Sources: West Main Street Values contributions, West Main Street Values expenditures

- Jason Puckett 

Credit: AP
Democratic presidential primary debate at the Gaillard Center, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C., co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. (AP)

CLAIM: Bernie Sanders said that “every study out there — conservative or progressive — says, ‘Medicare for All’ will save money.”

This claim is false. Some studies say that, some don’t.

Sanders, a Vermont senator, cites a recent medical journal article in The Lancet, which estimated “Medicare for All” would save more than $450 billion annually, or about 13%.

But other studies have found a Sanders-like single-payer plan would cost more, partly because free health care would increase the demand for services.

A study last fall from the Commonwealth Fund and the Urban Institute estimated that such a plan would increase national health spending by about $720 billion.

A Rand study estimated spending would increase 1.8% under a national single-payer plan. 

Sources: Rand study, Commonwealth Fund, Lancet 

- The Associated Press 

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