Fact check: Biden says he's never earned $400,000 a year

Posted September 15, 2020 5:12 p.m. EDT
Updated September 15, 2020 5:53 p.m. EDT

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden talked up his tax plan during a conversation with steelworkers in Detroit.

"Every single thing I talk about, I pay for, by making sure, for the first time, the wealthy begin to pay what they should be paying," Biden said Sept. 9. "We’re not going to punish anybody. No one making under $400,000, which is more money than I’ve ever made, is going to have to pay more taxes."

Broadly speaking, Biden’s changes would repeal provisions in President Donald Trump’s tax law for taxpayers earning over $400,000 and increase the top corporate tax rate to 28% from 21%, among other measures.

Independent analysts agree that Biden’s plan would not directly raise taxes for those earning less than $400,000, though those workers could feel the indirect effects of a corporate tax hike.

But what about Biden’s description of his own earning history?

When Thomas Kaplan of the New York Times reported on the event in Detroit, he noted parenthetically that "Mr. Biden has, in fact, made more than $400,000; his tax returns from 2017 and 2018 showed income of many multiples that amount."

That’s correct, based on the combined incomes of Biden and his wife, Jill, as reported on their joint returns.

The Tax Notes archive of presidential candidates’ tax returns shows the following adjusted gross incomes for Joe and Jill Biden for the tax years since 1998:

1998: $215,432    2005: $321,379     2012: $385,072
1999: $210,797    2006: $248,459     2013: $407,009
2000: $219,953    2007: $319,853     2014: $388,844
2001: $220,712    2008: $269,256     2015: $392,233
2002: $227,811    2009: $333,182     2016: $396,456
2003: $231,375    2010: $379,178     2017: $11,031,309
2004: $234,271  2011: $379,035     2018: $4,580,437

So the Bidens together exceeded the $400,000 threshold by several thousand dollars once, in 2013, and by much larger amounts twice, in 2017 and 2018. (Their 2019 tax return has not yet been made public.)

This pattern makes sense: As a senator and later as vice president, Joe Biden’s salary was fixed by law, and Jill Biden worked in teaching. As vice president, Biden earned up to $230,700 a year, and as a senator his annual salary varied from $44,600 when he began serving in the Senate in 1973 to $169,300 by the time he left the chamber in January 2009. The Bidens’ returns going back to 2008 also include income from Social Security benefits.

But once Biden departed the vice presidency in January 2017, he could take advantage of more lucrative private-sector opportunities. Both Bidens wrote books afterward, and Joe Biden’s presidential financial disclosure form lists more than four dozen events characterized either as speaking engagements or book tour events, for each of which he typically earned five- and six-figure payments.

When we reached out to the Biden campaign, they said he was referring to his full-time annual salaries as a public official, and that as an employee of the New Castle, Del., county council and a U.S. senator, he never made more than $400,000 annually.

PolitiFact ruling

PolitiFact: Mostly False

Biden said $400,000 "is more money than I’ve ever made" in a year.

That was accurate for most of Biden’s career, when he was in public service and his wife Jill was in teaching. But after Biden left the vice presidency, he earned money from speaking engagements and a book tour, and the couple reported a combined adjusted gross income of more than $11 million and $4 million in successive years.

We rate the statement Mostly False.

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