Fact Check: FactChecking Tim Scott’s Presidential Campaign Announcement
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina announced on May 22 that he will seek the Republican nomination for president in 2024. We reviewed his speech — and an exclusive NBC News interview he did shortly after — and found that he made a few claims that were false, misleading or lacked important context.
- Scott said that, under President Joe Biden, “millions” have left “the workforce entirely” and “the share of working age men choosing to work” is at its “lowest.” But both the civilian labor force level and the male labor force participation rate have increased.
- He left the false impression that preventing illegal immigration would “stop fentanyl from crossing our border.” Most drug seizures at the border occur during traffic stops at legal ports of entry.
- In talking about the southern border, Scott said “hundreds of people on our terrorist watchlist are crossing our borders.” Since fiscal 2021, 209 people on the watchlist have been stopped trying to cross illegally on the southern border. But hundreds more have been stopped at legal ports on the northern border.
- Scott said Biden “wants to make waitresses and mechanics pay for the student loans of lawyers and doctors making six figures.” While some doctors and lawyers earning over $100,000 would be eligible for loan cancellation under Biden’s plan, the Penn Wharton Budget Model estimates that about two-thirds of the benefits would accrue to households making $88,000 or less.
Since Biden took office, the number of people in the civilian labor force has increased, and the labor force participation rate for men also has gone up. But Scott gave the opposite impression in his speech from Charleston, South Carolina.
“Under President Biden, our nation is retreating away from work and dignity,” Scott said. “Millions and millions of people have dropped out of the workforce entirely, and the share of working age men choosing to work is the lowest it has ever been.”
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the civilian labor force, which includes all people over 16 who are working or actively looking for work, has gone up under Biden. As of April, there were almost 166.7 million people in the labor force — which is up from 160 million in January 2021, when Biden was sworn in as president, and 164.5 million in February 2020, which was the last month before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared.
The labor force participation rate for men 16 and older also has increased while Biden has been in office. Their participation rate was 68.1% in April. That’s higher than the rate of 67.4% in January 2021 and the rate of 66.1% in April 2020, which was the lowest rate for men going back to 1948.
The rate in April was still below the pre-pandemic level of 69.1% in February 2020, but the participation rate among males generally has been declining since the late 1940s, according to BLS figures, as shown in this chart from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
In a 2021 report, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond wrote that “the general consensus of research” was that male labor force participation had been declining for several reasons, including “a shift in U.S. industry structure, a decline in male educational attainment, delayed family formation, the rise of substance abuse, and heavy use of video games.” The aging of the male population also was a factor, the article said.
Furthermore, the labor force participation rate for men ages 25 to 54 — which is sometimes called the prime working age — was 89.2% in April. That’s up from 87.6% when Biden’s presidency began, and it’s equal to the rate in February 2020, just before COVID-19 economic shutdowns sent the rate down to 86.4% two months later.
Finally, the unemployment rates for men 16 and over, and men 25 to 54, were the same in April as they were in February 2020 – 3.5% and 3.1%, respectively. Those respective figures were down from 6.4% and 5.8% in January 2021.
In his interview on NBC News after he announced his candidacy, Scott left the false impression that building a wall along the southern border and taking other steps to prevent people from illegally entering the country can “stop fentanyl from crossing our border.”
“Closing that southern border saves perhaps tens of thousands of American lives. 70,000 Americans have lost their lives in a single year because of fentanyl,” Scott said. “Building the wall, using the latest and greatest technology that’s available today, about $5 billion, will provide more surveillance on our southern border to stop fentanyl from crossing our border.”
Scott is right about the number of deaths from fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid that is responsible for a growing increase in the number of drug overdoses in the U.S. that predates Biden’s presidency. Synthetic opioids – primarily fentanyl and fentanyl analogues – have been the leading cause of overdose deaths since 2016 and continue to rise, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.
In 2021, there were more than 71,000 fatal overdoses from synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, up from nearly 58,000 in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2022, there were a record 109,680 overdose deaths, including 76% that involved opioids, according to CDC’s preliminary estimate.
But Scott is wrong to suggest that stopping people from illegally entering the country can “stop fentanyl from crossing our border.”
As we have written before, most drug seizures at the border occur during traffic stops at legal ports of entry.
“Generally, intelligence suggests that more foreign-produced cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl flow into the country through official ports of entry (POEs) than between the ports,” the Congressional Research Service said in a 2020 report (emphasis is in the report). “Seizure data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) follows this pattern as well.”
Mexican cartels use “a variety of methods to transport heroin, fentanyl, and other illicit opioids into the United States,” but private vehicles, “rental vehicles, and trucks/tractor trailers” are “the most commonly used modes of transport,” the Drug Enforcement Administration said in its 2020 threat assessment report.
As CRS says, CBP seizure data suggest that fentanyl is largely entering the U.S. through legal ports of entry.
Through the first seven months of fiscal year 2023, 15,500 pounds of fentanyl were seized at legal ports of entry by the Office of Field Operations. By contrast, the U.S. Border Patrol seized 1,500 pounds of fentanyl in between the legal ports of entry.
Terrorist Watch List
Scott linked immigration at the southern border to the terrorist watchlist. But his remarks require some context.
“And if our southern border is unsafe and insecure, it’s not our country,” Scott said in his speech. “Hundreds of people on our terrorist watchlist are crossing our borders.”
Voters may be surprised to learn that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has encountered more people on the terrorist watchlist trying to enter at legal ports of entry on the northern border in recent years than those apprehended trying to cross the southern border illegally.
The statistics from Customs and Border Protection show the number of people caught trying to enter the U.S. who are on the Terrorist Screening Dataset, commonly called the watchlist, which includes “known or suspected terrorists” and “additional individuals who represent a potential threat to the United States, including known affiliates of watchlisted individuals,” CBP says. There aren’t statistics on watchlisted individuals who may not have been stopped by CBP.
In the past three years, CBP has seen an increase in non-U.S. citizen watchlist individuals on the southern border between ports of entry, in other words attempting to enter the U.S. illegally. In fiscal year 2021, which ended on Sept. 30, 2021, the number was 15 people; in fiscal year 2022, it was 98, and so far in fiscal 2023, 96 watchlist individuals have been stopped. That totals 209 people, just making Scott’s description of “hundreds” — though he doesn’t explicitly say he’s only talking about illegal immigration.
For fiscal years 2017 through 2020, the number encountered on the southern border between ports of entry totaled only 11.
Of course, the total number of people apprehended while trying to cross the southern border has also gone up considerably during the Biden administration, as we recently explained.
But CBP’s data show the larger issue has been watchlist individuals encountered at legal ports of entry, particularly at the northern border.
In fiscal 2022, there were 313 watchlist encounters at legal ports of entry on the northern border. This may include some U.S. citizens, since CBP notes these are from “all nationalities.” It also says these figures “may include multiple encounters of the same individual.”
Since fiscal 2017, the year with the highest number of watchlist encounters overall was fiscal 2019, with 541 — all but three of these encounters were at legal ports of entry on both the northern and southern border.
The chart below shows the breakdown of these figures.
The last line shows that those encountered between ports of entry are a tiny percentage of all people stopped by U.S. Border Patrol. “Encounters of watchlisted individuals at our borders are very uncommon,” CBP says.
Student Loan Forgiveness
Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan was crafted in a way to ensure that the majority of debt cancellation goes to middle- and lower-income households. Nonetheless, some relatively high-income professionals would get relief, and to the extent all taxpayers are on the hook for the cost of Biden’s plan, moderate-income people could be paying a share of loan forgiveness for some high-income earners.
Scott exploited those possibilities when he said that Biden “wants to make waitresses and mechanics pay for the student loans of lawyers and doctors making six figures.”
It’s true that some doctors and lawyers would benefit from Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, but Biden’s plan has some eligibility requirements that would limit the number who would stand to gain.
Under the plan Biden unveiled in August 2022, individuals making less than $125,000 or married couples making less than $250,000 would be eligible for up to $10,000 in debt cancellation. Another $10,000 could be waived for some people under those income caps who also received federal Pell Grants, which are awarded to students based on financial need.
People with advanced degrees — like those required to be a doctor or lawyer — tend to have more student debt, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute. But they also are more likely to earn more, and are less likely to be eligible for Biden’s proposed loan forgiveness due to the income caps.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay for lawyers in 2021 was about $128,000. It was at least $208,000 for physicians and surgeons. So right off the bat, most doctors and many lawyers would be ineligible for student loan forgiveness because they earn too much money. Nonetheless, some doctors and lawyers earning six figures would still be eligible.
The Penn Wharton Budget Model concluded that Biden’s debt cancellation plan would cost between $469 billion and $519 billion over 10 years. To the extent that all taxpayers would shoulder that cost, some waitresses and mechanics would pay for loan cancellation for some doctors and lawyers.
However, the Penn Wharton Budget Model estimated that about two-thirds of the benefits of student loan forgiveness would accrue to households making $88,000 or less in 2021. A little more than 8% would accrue to households that earned between $141,096 and $212,209 (those in the 80th to 90th percentile). Households making more than that would see 1.7% of the loan cancellation benefits.
Biden’s plan is on hold as it is being challenged in the courts. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on two cases by the end of June.
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