Fact-checking Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s media blitz
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old self-described “democratic socialist” who unexpectedly toppled a top Democratic incumbent in the primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District, is a sudden media star even though she has not been elected to Congress. (She has no real competition in the general election.)
With celebrity comes scrutiny. Ocasio-Cortez has come under fire for dismissing concerns about the anticipated costs of her proposals and offering too-glib answers.
For instance, in an appearance on CNN Aug. 8, when challenged on the costs of government-financed health care, she answered: “Why aren’t we incorporating the cost of all the funeral expenses of those who died because they can’t afford access to health care? That is part of the cost of our system.”
Several readers have asked us to vet some of her claims, and because of summer vacation schedules, we’ve been a bit slower to follow up than our fact-checking colleagues. So here’s a quick round-up of some of her recent eyebrow-raising claims, though to be fair to Ocasio-Cortez, the average member of Congress might easily make many bloopers over the course of so many live interviews.
As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios in round-ups. But we will be watching Ocasio-Cortez closely as she continues her media blitz. A spokesman for her campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
“Unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs. Unemployment is low because people are working 60, 70, 80 hours a week and can barely feed their family.”
— interview on PBS’s “Firing Line,” July 13, 2018
This is an example of sweeping language — “everyone has two jobs” — that can get a rookie politician in trouble. She may personally know people who have two jobs, but the data is pretty clear that this statement is poppycock.
First of all, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that the percentage of people working two jobs has actually declined since the Great Recession — and been relatively steady at around 5 percent since 2010. The percentage bounced around a bit but it was as low as 4.7 percent in October 2017 and was 5.2 percent in the July jobs report, the most recent available. That hardly adds up to “everyone.”
“After reaching a peak of 6.2 percent during 1995–96, the multiple job-holding rate began to recede,” the BLS noted in a report. “By the mid-2000s, the rate had declined to 5.2 percent and remained close to that level from 2006 to 2009. In 2010, the multiple job-holding rate decreased to 4.9 percent and has remained at 4.9 percent or 5.0 percent from 2010 to 2017.”
The July data shows most of these people juggling two jobs — 58 percent — have a primary job and a part-time job. Only 6 percent have two full-time jobs, which calls into question her claim that people are working “60, 70, 80 hours a week.” Indeed, the average hours worked per week for private employees has remained steady at just under 35 hours for years.
“ICE is the only criminal investigative agency, the only enforcement agency in the United States, that has a bed quota. So ICE is required to fill 34,000 beds with detainees every single night and that number has only been increasing since 2009.”
— in an interview with the Intercepted podcast, May 30
As our friends at PolitiFact documented, this is an urban legend. There is language in the 2016 appropriations bill that requires ICE to have 34,000 beds available — ICE “shall maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds through September 30, 2016” — but it is not required to fill them. The main point of such language, a version of which dated to 2009, is to make sure the money is not spent on something else.
In 2014, in an exchange with Republican lawmakers, then Homeland Security Secretary Secretary Jeh Johnson testified that he did not view it as a mandate to fill the beds. “That’s beds, not people,” Johnson said.
In any case, the language was eliminated in the 2017 and 2018 appropriations bills. So it’s not even an issue anymore.
“They [national Democrats] were campaigning most when we had more of an American middle class. This upper middle class is probably more moderate but that upper middle class does not exist anymore in America.”
— interview on “Pod Save America,” Aug. 7
Here’s some more sweeping rhetoric. In knocking the current leaders of the Democrats, stuck in “ ’90s politics,” Ocasio-Cortez said the “upper middle class does not exist anymore.”
But the data show that while the middle class overall may have shrunk a bit, the upper middle class has actually grown. In a 2016 paper published by the Urban Institute, Stephen J. Rose documented that the upper middle class has grown substantially, from 12.9 percent of the population in 1979 to 29.4 percent in 2014. His analysis showed that there was a massive shift in the center of gravity of the economy, with an increasing share of income going to the upper middle class and rich.
“In 1979, the middle class controlled a bit more than 46 percent of all incomes, and the upper middle class and rich controlled 30 percent,” Rose wrote. “In contrast, in 2014 the rich and upper middle class controlled 63 percent of all incomes (52 percent for the upper middle class and 11 percent for the rich); the middle class share had shrunk to 26 percent; and the shares of the lower middle class, poor, and near-poor had declined by half.”
“In a Koch brothers-funded study — if any study’s going to try to be a little bit slanted, it would be one funded by the Koch brothers — it shows that Medicare for all is actually much more, is actually much cheaper than the current system that we pay right now.”
— interview on CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time,” Aug. 8
We recently gave this sort of claim Three Pinocchios. Some Democrats have seized on a reference in a study released by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, which receives some funding from the Koch Foundation, that a Medicare-for-all plan advanced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would reduce the country’s overall level of health expenditures by $2 trillion from 2022 to 2031. That’s because the Sanders plan would slashing payments to providers by 40 percent.
But the study makes clear that this is an unrealistic assumption and in fact the plan would raise government expenditures by $32.6 trillion over 10 years. Without the provider cuts, the additional federal budget cost would be nearly $40 trillion. So, no matter how you slice it, the study does not say it would be “much cheaper” than the current system.
“The reason that the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act is because they ruled that each of these monthly payments that everyday American make is a tax. And so, while it may not seem like we pay that tax on April 15th, we pay it every single month or we do pay at tax season if we don’t buy, you know, these plans off of the exchange.”
— interview on CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time,” Aug. 8
This appears to be an example of not understanding policy nuances.
In the 5-4 opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Affordable Care Act was deemed to be an appropriate exercise of the government’s taxing power. But Roberts was not referring to the monthly premium payments, as Ocasio-Cortez claims. Instead, Roberts was referring to the individual mandate to buy insurance — and the requirement to pay an annual penalty when filing a tax return if one did not buy health insurance.
“The Affordable Care Act’s requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax,” Roberts wrote. “Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.”
Ironically, the Obama administration had passed the law insisting the mandate was not a tax.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form
Keep tabs on Trump’s promises with our Trump Promise Tracker
Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter