FACT CHECK: Sanders’ economic inequality stat could use an update

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A pair of Democratic presidential candidates visited the Triangle this week with early voting beginning in North Carolina and Super Tuesday coming up next month.

Bernie Sanders spoke at a rally in Durham on Friday, a day after Michael Bloomberg made a similar appearance in Raleigh.

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We took a closer look at some claims publicly made by both of them as part of CBS 17 News’ political pledge to test the factual accuracy of candidate’s speeches and interviews.

THE CLAIM: Sanders, in discussing wealth inequality, repeated his oft-made claim that “49 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent.”

THE FACTS: It looks like Sanders is using some old statistics.

CBS 17 News asked the Sanders campaign about the origin of those numbers and spokesman Kolby Lee pointed us to another fact-checker who cited a study conducted by University of California-Berkeley economics professor Emmanuel Saez.

The March 2019 update to his study “Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States” included several key numbers from 2009-17: While average real income per family grew by 14 percent, those gains were uneven — top 1 percent incomes grew by 38.1 percent, compared to 8.7 percent gains for the remaining 99 percent.

That squares with the number cited by Sanders: 49 percent of the income gains during that time went to the top 1 percent.

But CBS 17 News investigated further and found Saez updated his study earlier this month to include 2018 estimates, the most recent statistics available.

The numbers changed, and the gap in income growth became narrower.

According to the revised study, from 2009-18, average real income per family grew by an even larger margin, 16.8 percent, and the gains remained uneven. Top 1 percent incomes grew by 41.6 percent while the remaining 99 percent showed gains of 11.4 percent.

The bottom line, according to Saez, is that the top 1 percent captured 45 percent — not 49 — of the income gains during that span.

THE CONCLUSION: Accurate in a general sense, but Sanders probably should update his numbers for precision’s sake.

THE CLAIM: Bloomberg said he “raised life expectancy by three whole years” as mayor of New York City.

THE FACTS: CBS 17 News asked the Bloomberg campaign about the origin of that stat and spokeswoman Miryam Lipper directed us to documents from the New York City Department of Health.

According to the city’s 2014 summary of vital statistics, the life expectancy for the average New Yorker was 81.1 years in 2013 — the year Bloomberg left office.

That figure climbed from 77.9 years in the year before he took office, in 2001, according to a report from the department of health and mental hygiene.

Over that time, that’s an increase of 3.2 years.

It’s also true that Bloomberg pushed several public health initiatives during a dozen years as mayor. The city increased the municipal tax on cigarettes and raised the minimum age to purchase them to 21, banned trans fat from its restaurants and added calorie counts to menus at chain restaurants. Bloomberg also pushed for a ban on super-sized soft drinks at restaurants and theaters — the so-called “Big Gulp ban” — but that failed to pass.

THE CONCLUSION: Those raw numbers do show an increase. And yes, public health was an obvious priority for Bloomberg. But it’s hard to say with certainty how much credit should go to the former mayor.

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