State of the Union fact check: Trump's most misleading claims on economy, drugs and the wall

  1. The economy
  2. Wages
  3. The wall
  4. Drug pricing
  5. Human trafficking
Adam Withnall
Wednesday 06 February 2019 00:23 EST
(AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump has delivered his State of the Union address – setting out how he believes America has performed in the past year. True to form, the president used statistics in places to exaggerate his own performance and the threats the country faces. Here we break down some of those moments.

  1. The economy

    What Trump said: “The United States economy is growing almost twice as fast today as when I took office, and we are considered far and away the hottest economy anywhere in the world.

    “In just over two years since the election, we have launched an unprecedented economic boom — a boom that has rarely been seen before. There’s been nothing like it. ... An economic miracle is taking place in the United States.”

    The facts: The president is vastly exaggerating what has been a mild improvement in growth and hiring. The economy is healthy but not nearly one of the best in US history.

    The economy expanded at an annual rate of 3.8 per cent last spring and summer, a solid pace. But it was just the fastest in four years. In the late 1990s, growth topped 4 per cent for four straight years, a level it has not yet reached under Trump. And growth even reached 7.2 per cent in 1984.

    Almost all independent economists expect slower growth this year as the effect of the Trump administration’s tax cuts fade, trade tensions and slower global growth hold back exports, and higher interest rates make it more expensive to borrow to buy cars and homes.

    And the US economy is certainly not the fastest growing in the world. Of the major countries, India‘s economy is growing at 7.2 per cent – forecast to rise to 7.5 per cent in the coming year.

  2. Wages

    What Trump said: “Wages are rising at the fastest pace in decades, and growing for blue collar workers, who I promised to fight for, they’re growing faster than anyone else thought possible.”

    The facts: This is an unsupported statement because the data on hourly wages for private workers only go back to 2006, not decades.

    But data on wages for production workers date back to 1939 — and Trump’s claim appears to be unfounded.

    Average hourly earnings for production and non-supervisory workers are up 3.4 percent over the past year, according to the Labor Department. Those wage gains were higher as recently as early 2009. And they were averaging roughly 4 percent before the start of the Great Recession in late 2007.

    There are other ways to track wage gains — and those don’t work in Trump’s favour, either.

    Adjusted for inflation, median weekly wages rose just 0.6 per cent in 2018. The gains in weekly wages were 2.1 per cent in 2015.

  3. The wall

    What Trump said: “These (border) agents will tell you where walls go up, illegal crossings go way, way down ... San Diego used to have the most illegal border crossings in our country. In response, a strong security wall was put in place. This powerful barrier almost completely ended illegal crossings ... Simply put, walls work and walls save lives.”

    The facts: It’s a lot more complicated than that.

    Yes, Border Patrol arrests in the San Diego sector plummeted 96 percent from nearly 630,000 in 1986 to barely 26,000 in 2017, a period during which walls were built. But the crackdown pushed illegal crossings to less-patrolled and more remote Arizona deserts, where thousands died in the heat. Arrests in Tucson in 2000 nearly matched San Diego’s peak.

    Critics say the “water-balloon effect” — build a wall in one spot and migrants will find an opening elsewhere — undermines Trump’s argument, though proponents say it only demonstrates that walls should be extended.

    The Government Accountability Office reported in 2017 that the US has not developed metrics that demonstrate how barriers have contributed to border security.

  4. Drug pricing

    What Trump said: “Already, as a result of my administration’s efforts, in 2018 drug prices experienced their single largest decline in 46 years.”

    The facts: Trump is selectively citing statistics to exaggerate what seems to be a slowdown in prices. A broader look at the data shows that drug prices are still rising, but more moderately. Some independent experts say criticism from Trump and congressional Democrats may be causing pharmaceutical companies to show restraint.

    The Consumer Price Index for prescription drugs shows a O.6 per cent reduction in prices in December 2018 when compared with December 2017, the biggest drop in nearly 50 years. The government index tracks a set of medications including brand drugs and generics.

    However, that same index showed a 1.6 per cent increase when comparing the full 12 months of 2018 with the entire previous year.

    “The annualized number gives you a better picture,” said economist Paul Hughes-Cromwick of Altarum, a nonprofit research organisation. “It could be that something quirky happened in December.”

    Separately, an analysis of brand-name drug prices by The Associated Press shows there were 2,712 price increases in the first half of this January, as compared with 3,327 increases during the same period last year.

    The size of this year’s increases was not as pronounced. Both this year and last, the number of price cuts was minuscule. The information for the analysis was provided by the health data firm Elsevier.

  5. Human trafficking

    What Trump said: “Human traffickers and sex traffickers take advantage of the wide open areas between our ports of entry to smuggle thousands of young girls and women into the United States and to sell them into prostitution and modern-day slavery.”

    The facts: His administration has not supplied evidence that women and girls are smuggled by the “thousands” across remote areas of the border for these purposes. What has been established is nearly 80 per cent of international trafficking victims cross through legal ports of entry, a flow that would not be stopped by a border wall.

    Trump distorts how often trafficking victims come from the southern border, according the Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative , a global hub for trafficking statistics with data contributed by organisations from around the world.

    The National Human Trafficking Hotline, a venture supported by federal money and operated by the anti-trafficking group Polaris , began tracking individual victim records in 2015. From January through June 31, 2018, it tracked 35,000 potential victims. Of those, there was a near equal distribution between foreigners on one hand and US citizens and legal permanent residents on the other.

    Most of the labour trafficking victims were foreign, and most of the sex trafficking victims were US citizens. Of foreign nationals, Mexico had the most frequently trafficked.

    Additional reporting by agencies

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