Political News

Fact-checking Biden's speech on Social Security, fracking and crime

Posted August 31, 2020 9:58 p.m. EDT

— During a speech Monday billed as one focused on public safety and law enforcement, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden took several swipes at President Donald Trump and defended himself against Trump's attacks.

Biden ridiculed Trump's response to the pandemic, blamed him for sowing chaos and accused him of falsely representing Biden's position on fracking. Here's a look at some of the context and facts around several claims Biden made.

Cops and the coronavirus

"More cops have died from Covid this year than have been killed on patrol," Biden said in his speech.

Facts First: This is true.

According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a national nonprofit organization "dedicated to honoring America's fallen law enforcement heroes," 97 officers have died from Covid-19 while 80 officers died by other means, as of this reporting.

The second highest cause of death is gunfire, which has killed 30 officers this year, according to the memorial page.

Violence and chaos

Biden claimed that a political adviser for Trump had said that "the more chaos ... and violence ... the better it is" for Trump.

Facts First: This needs context. It appears Biden is referencing comments that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway made last week on "Fox and Friends." Here's what she said: "[T]he more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better news for the very clear choice on who's best on public safety and law and order."

Biden is taking the step to connect Conway's "clear choice" with the President's campaign.

Murder and other violent crimes

Biden contrasted the Obama administration's record on violent crime rates to the Trump administration's.

"When I was vice president, violent crimes fell 15% in this country," Biden said, adding later that "the murder rate now is up 26% across the nation this year under Donald Trump."

Facts First: Biden is correct on violent crimes falling from 2008 to 2016. Statistics on the murder rate this year are not yet available nationwide -- though some major cities have seen an uptick in the rate.

According to the FBI's estimates, in 2008 the US saw 458.6 violent crimes per 100,000 people and in 2016 that number was 386.3, a 15% decrease. The murder rate decreased nearly 2% from 2008 to 2016.

On Monday, Biden veered from his prepared remarks, which included the words "in cities," making it "[t]he murder rate is up 26% in cities across the nation." But Biden did not include these two words in his speech and we don't know what the US murder rate for this year is.

While a nationwide murder rate for this year so far from the FBI is not available, from May to June 2020, homicides in 20 major US cities increased by 37%, as CNN reported on August 16, led by Chicago, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, according to data from the nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice think tank.

Jeff Asher, a co-founder of the consulting firm AH Datalytics and former crime analyst for the city of New Orleans, found that in 25 cities "with data publicly available through July" the murder rate was up 26% compared with this time in 2019.

Fracking

"I am not banning fracking, no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me," Biden said during his speech.

Facts First: Biden is not running on a proposal to completely ban fracking (hydraulic fracturing, a drilling method used to extract natural gas or oil). However, there is at least some basis for Trump's claim: During the Democratic primary, Biden sometimes suggested he was proposing to get rid of all fracking. He's also pledged to "establish an enforcement mechanism to achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050," which would almost certainly require a significant reduction in fracking.

Biden's written plan never included a full ban on fracking; rather, it proposes "banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters," not ending all new fracking anywhere or ending all existing fracking on public lands and waters. Biden has explicitly said he does not support a nationwide fracking ban (though in part because he doesn't believe such a ban would pass).

Biden created confusion about his stance with some of his comments during the Democratic primary. For example, he had this exchange with CNN's Dana Bash during a July 2019 debate:

Bash: "Thank you, Mr. Vice President. Just to clarify, would there be any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration?"

Biden: "No, we would -- we would work it out. We would make sure it's eliminated and no more subsidies for either one of those, either -- any fossil fuel."

Could a president even ban fracking alone? No.

Without an act of Congress, the President could not issue an outright ban on fracking across the US. There are, however, a number of regulatory and executive actions an administration could take to prevent or shrink the use of fracking technology, particularly on federal land. The problem is that most fracking takes place on private land, and any attempts to limit it would likely face legal challenges.

Social Security

The former vice president said that Trump had a plan to defund Social Security, quoting a report from the Social Security Administration.

"The Social Security Administration's chief actuary just released a report saying that if a plan like the one Trump is proposing goes into effect," Biden said, "the Social Security Trust Fund would be, and I quote, 'permanently depleted by the middle of calendar year 2023 with no ability to pay benefits thereafter.' "

Facts First: This is basically true. The Social Security Administration found that Trump's plan to eliminate payroll taxes would deplete the Social Security funds in three years if no other revenue source were put in place. Trump has suggested that the funds would come from the general fund.

The Social Security Administration's Office of the Chief Actuary conducted an analysis at the request of Democratic senators on the effects Trump's plan to eliminate the payroll tax would have on Social Security funds. It found that the Social Security Trust Fund could be depleted in 2023 if there were no new source of revenue.

During a news briefing on August 12, Trump said if reelected he would "terminate the payroll tax," adding that Social Security would be paid for through the general fund. "It works out very nicely," he said.

The next day Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, added confusion, telling reporters that Trump meant that "he wants permanent forgiveness of the deferral" instead of permanently eliminating the payroll tax. But that's not what Trump said.

Only Congress can terminate the payroll tax and it's unclear, with the House controlled by Democrats and the difficulty of rallying Senate Republicans behind such a proposal, how Trump would get rid of the tax by the end of the year.

During the briefing, when pressed by Fox News' John Roberts on his assertion that the general fund would finance Social Security after the payroll tax was eliminated, Trump claimed that strong economic growth would cover the loss of the payroll taxes.

But with the general fund already incurring trillions of dollars in debt, paired with the fact that the payroll tax brings in more than a third of federal revenue, some see Trump's belief that economic growth could recoup these loses as fantastical.

Small business

Biden said that "nearly 1 in 6" small businesses have closed this year.

He made a similar claim during the Democratic National Convention. Here's what we found:

Facts First: That number could be right, but we don't know if those closures are permanent.

There's little real-time data on small business closures because they don't often file for bankruptcy when they shut their doors. State and city lockdown orders forced many small businesses to close for weeks, if not months, this year. Even some of those owners who have reopened may not know if they can remain afloat as they struggle to get customers back and the pandemic lingers on.

Research by a Harvard University-based team, called Opportunity Insights, found that the number of small businesses operating as of August 7 was down 19.4% compared with January. A separate survey of small businesses conducted by the US Chamber of Commerce in mid-July found that 12% of owners said their businesses were temporarily closed, another 1% said they were permanently closed and 1% said they didn't know.

Following the convention speech, Biden campaign spokesman Michael Gwin told CNN that it had taken the average of the two studies.

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