FactCheck

Comparing Benefits for Refugees and Senior Citizens

Quick Take

A popular meme falsely claims that each month refugees in the United States receive over three times more money in “federal assistance” than Social Security beneficiaries. That’s a new version of an old claim we debunked over a decade ago.

Full Story

A bogus comparison of benefits for “illegal refugees” and Social Security recipients is stirring up anger online.

The claim, which has been shared as a meme, says: “Insanity is when illegal refugees get $3,874 a month in federal assistance while Social Security checks average $1,200 a month.”

That sounds a lot like an old falsehood that started in Canada in 2004, and later migrated to the U.S. We wrote about it first in 2007, then again in 2009, and again in 2010.

This most recent version isn’t true, either, and it also may have borrowed from another Canadian viral claim. The figure this meme uses for refugee benefits is the same one used in what Snopes called a “mostly false” Facebook posting about benefits in Canada.

To start with, there are no “illegal refugees.” Under U.S. law, refugee status is given to those who are admitted to the country after demonstrating that they have fled persecution. The number of refugees that the U.S. takes in each year is capped by the president under the Refugee Act of 1980 — for fiscal year 2019, the cap is set at 30,000, which is the lowest it has been since 1980.

While refugees are eligible to apply for some federally funded programs, not all of them do, a spokesman at the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families told us.

An internal report from the Department of Health and Human Services in 2017 estimated that the annual per refugee cost was $7,134 for federal, state and local governments combined between 2005 and 2014. Programs funded by the federal government were 74 percent of that total, so, on average, the federal government spent $440 per refugee, per month, during the study’s time period.

That’s a lot less than the nearly $3,900 a month the meme claims — which would work out to be about $47,000 per year.

Also, many of the programs that refugees are eligible to apply for are temporary. Two of the primary assistance programs available to refugees are Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, and Refugee Cash Assistance, or RCA.

TANF is a program for needy families that is funded jointly by federal and state governments and is administered by states. It is available to refugee families for their first five years in the U.S. RCA is a federally funded program that is also administered by states, and is available to refugees who do not qualify for TANF. It is available for the first eight months that a refugee is in the country.

The amount of money given out under each program varies widely depending on the state. For example, monthly TANF payments for a single-parent family of three ranged from $170 to $1,021 in 2017.

As for the second part of the claim in the meme — “Social Security checks average $1,200 a month” — that’s close to the correct figure. The average monthly Social Security benefit for all retired workers in 2019 is $1,461, according to the Social Security Administration.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.

Sources

Jackson, Brooks. “Refugees Don’t Get $1,800 Per Month.” FactCheck.org. 7 Dec 2007.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. “The Fiscal Costs of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program at the Federal, State, and Local Levels, from 2005­-2014.” 29 Jul 2017.

Congressional Research Service. “Noncitizen Eligibility for Federal Public Assistance: Policy Overview.” 12 Dec 2016.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. “Understanding the Intersection Between TANF and Refugee Cash Assistance Services.” Apr 2018.

Social Security Administration. Fact Sheet. 2019 Social Security changes. Accessed 18 Jul 2019.

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Unpacking Biden’s and Trump’s Big Cancer Promises

On the campaign trail, former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump have both claimed that a cure to cancer would soon become a reality — if they were elected in 2020. Experts, however, don’t share that degree of optimism.

Despite considerable progress, especially in recent years, cancer isn’t one disease to cure, and advances in all the many types of cancer are likely to take multiple decades.

Biden was the first to make the outsized promise. In a speech in Iowa on June 11, he briefly alluded to his son’s death to brain cancer in 2015, and then offered his pledge.

“I promise you if I’m elected president, you’re going to see the single most important thing that changes America,” he said. “We’re gonna cure cancer.”

A week later, on June 18, Trump made a similarly prophetic statement during his 2020 kickoff rally in Orlando, Florida, as he listed several agenda items for a second term.

“We will come up with the cures to many, many problems, to many, many diseases, including cancer and others,” he said. “And we’re getting closer all the time.”

It’s difficult to fact-check promises — after all, we can’t predict the future. And while both politicians suggested these cures would come while they were still in office, neither explicitly said when exactly this would happen. But oncologists say curing cancer is unlikely to happen within the next decade.

Still, experts do expect to be able to cure more patients in the coming years, and some types of cancer are already curable today.

We’ll run through some important considerations when thinking about cancer and its cures, give an overview of some recent successes, and spotlight some challenges that remain.

Cancer Isn’t One Disease

The first problem with both politicians’ statements, several experts told us, is that cancer isn’t a single disease. 

“Cancer is not just one entity. It’s not just tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS,” said Timothy Chan, a physician-scientist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “It’s really a catch-all name for hundreds and maybe even thousands of types of diseases.”

What unites all cancers is the theme of uncontrolled cell growth. As we’ve explained before, cancer happens when DNA mutations allow a cell to replicate with abandon, forming a tumor that eventually can metastasize, or spread throughout the body. 

In most cases, many mutations are needed to form a tumor; these can be inherited or come about during cell division or through environmental exposures.

The specific reasons for the unchecked growth, however, vary, both between and even within cancer types, which are usually categorized by the cell or tissue type of the originating tumor.

Kevin Kelly, an oncologist and clinical researcher at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University, said that when he started in medicine 25 years ago, lung cancer was only considered to have two types. “Now, they can actually subtype into 10 or 12 different types of lung cancer, based on the genomic profile,” he said. “That’s what makes it so complicated.”

And, as Chan said, no two people’s cancers are the same. Even within a single tumor, there can be genetic differences among cells as they collect new mutations, some of which can mean the difference between a portion of a tumor being treatable or not.

All of this means that curing cancer is unlikely to be a singular achievement. “There are going to be a thousand different cures,” said David Weiner, a cancer researcher and executive vice president of the Wistar Institute.

Given that “curing cancer” would mean finding many cures, Chan said doing so would be “impossible” in the next 10 years. “Maybe the next 50 years to cover everything,” he said.

Other experts were similarly skeptical about such an ambitious time frame.

“It’s going to take over a decade for us to see real impact on cancers,” said Kelly.

There Are Already Cures

Even if all cancers can’t be cured soon, multiple experts were quick to point out that some cancers can already be cured, no advances needed.

“We cure cancer every day,” said David Porter, a hematologist-oncologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, in an email. 

In his specialty of blood cancer, he said, many leukemia and lymphoma patients can be cured with conventional chemotherapy or with bone marrow or stem cell transplants.

Many pediatric cancers, too, are considered curable, Kelly said, as are many cases of testicular cancer, which is treated with chemo, surgery and sometimes radiation.

As long as a cancer hasn’t spread very far, surgical removal of a variety of tumors, including of the breast, prostate, lung and colon, can also prove curative, Kelly added.

Still, he acknowledged, for cancers that have already metastasized, most are not currently curable. 

It’s worth noting that in oncology, the word “cure” operates a bit differently than in most other medical specialties. As the National Cancer Institute explains, a cure means a person’s cancer has disappeared and will never come back.

While that happens for some people, doctors cannot guarantee a person who has been successfully treated won’t ever see their cancer return. Cancer is wily, and if even one leftover cancer cell escapes a treatment, it could come roaring back.

As a result, many physicians refer to remission instead, with complete remission referring to no symptoms or signs of cancer. The longer this remission lasts, the more likely it will continue. If there is no recurrence after five years, the chance of the cancer returning is low enough that some doctors will use the word “cure.”

Recent Successes & Realistic Expectations

Even if Biden’s and Trump’s pronouncements seem overly optimistic, researchers are nevertheless encouraged about many newly developed treatments and those in the pipeline.

“Treatments for cancer are being developed at an incredibly rapid pace. They are becoming more selective and targeted, and more potent,” said Porter, adding that he fully expects to be able to cure more patients with more types of cancer in the near future.

Some of the hottest new additions to the cancer arsenal are immunotherapies that take advantage of the body’s immune system to attack cancer. 

One form of immunotherapy that Porter has helped develop is CAR T-cell therapy, which involves removing white blood cells known as T cells from patients, reengineering the cells in the lab to recognize a person’s cancer, and then infusing the cells back into the patient.

Infographic courtesy of the National Cancer Institute.

While the treatment can trigger a sometimes life-threatening reaction as the immune system kicks into gear and eliminates its targets, physicians have learned more about how to reduce those side effects, and a subset of patients go into remission.

“It may be too early to know if CAR T-cells are curing patients permanently,” Porter said, “though I believe we have enough follow-up to suggest that many of these patients are likely cured.”

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration has approved two such treatments for blood cancers, one for patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia up to the age of 25, and another for adults with certain aggressive B-cell lymphomas. 

Both approvals have been within the last two years, and are reserved for patients whose cancers have not responded to other treatments. Within the next year, Porter expects the FDA to review new CAR T-cell therapies for other blood cancers, including multiple myeloma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Another set of game-changing immunotherapies are checkpoint inhibitors, one of which successfully treated former President Jimmy Carter’s advanced melanoma. 

Because cancer cells aren’t quite normal, T cells can often recognize them and take them out — but usually, only with some help. By blocking special molecules on the surface of cells that tumors use to stay hidden, these drugs spark T cells into action, turning them into cancer-killing machines.

Checkpoint inhibitors have been approved for a variety of tumors, including skin, lung, kidney, bladder, and head and neck cancers.

But not all treatments cure, and not all patients benefit — and herein lies the main problem. By one estimate, only about 12% of patients respond to checkpoint inhibitors, and even when patients do, tumors can become resistant to the drugs.

This is in part why Chan suggests a more plausible goal for the next decade is a “big improvement” in cancer treatment, perhaps being able to significantly extend the survival of patients in over half of the cancers. “That doesn’t sound as sexy” as a cure, he said, “but it’s more realistic.”

The challenge now is figuring out how to make these therapies and others work for more patients. One idea researchers are pursuing is mixing and matching different drugs and other therapies together, including with cancer vaccines, to find successful combinations.

In the end, though, Chan remains wholly optimistic. “I view cancer as a very complicated process, but a very dissectable and understandable process,” he said. “It’s a matter of just really figuring it out.”

What It’ll Take

Regardless of who wins the White House in 2020, experts told us the way to speed up progress on cancer is to bankroll more research. Without funding, breakthroughs can’t happen. 

More specifically, experts said they want to see more high-risk, high-reward work being funded. These projects are the kind that are more likely to fail, but they’re also more likely to lead to a genuinely new idea that could be revolutionary for the field.

“You want to try new things and be novel,” said Wistar’s Weiner. “Investment in high-risk, high-reward research is absolutely critical.”

Jefferson’s Kelly also suggested making it easier for researchers to share large sets of data and for more patients to seek out clinical trials.

“Only around 8% of patients actually get into a clinical trial,” he said. “And if we could double or triple it, we could increase how quickly we can test new drugs.”

Both candidates, to varying degrees, have proposed elements of these ideas in the past. But if budget proposals are expressions of a president’s priorities, Trump hasn’t yet made cancer a prime concern.

In fiscal year 2020, the Trump administration proposed shrinking the National Cancer Institute’s overall budget by almost $900 million, or 15%. NCI is the cancer wing of the National Institutes of Health, and is the primary federal agency doing cancer research and training.

Trump also suggested cuts to the NCI in both of his previous budgets, but Congress balked and provided funding increases. Since fiscal year 2003, the NCI budget has generally increased by a small amount every year, but those additions have not kept pace with inflation.

Trump has, however, supported childhood cancer research. In his 2019 State of the Union speech, he highlighted an initiative and promised that sector an extra $50 million each year for the next 10 years — the equivalent of a 10% annual boost. According to Science magazine, the initiative includes a large push for increased data sharing.

For his part, Biden was put in charge of former President Obama’s Cancer Moonshot project in 2016, and was instrumental in passing the 21st Century Cures Act, which funded the effort with $1.8 billion over seven years.

In 2017, Biden and his wife started a nonprofit, the Biden Cancer Initiative, to encourage collaboration in the fight against cancer. When Biden announced his 2020 run in April, both he and his wife stepped down from their roles in the organization. This month, the group suspended its operations.

Biden has not formally addressed how he would approach NCI funding if elected president, but said in an appearance at the AARP/Des Moines Register Presidential Forum on July 15 in Iowa that he would double NIH funding and create an ARPA-H, a health version of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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Video: Biden’s Crime Bill Claims

In this week’s fact-checking video, CNN’s Jake Tapper discusses three claims Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden made about his support for the 1994 crime bill. 

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 received bipartisan support at the time but has been criticized for some of its tough-on-crime provisions. Biden, who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, partly wrote the bill and guided it through the legislative process.

In a speech this month, Biden said, “I didn’t support the provision the president wanted in called three strikes and you’re out. Didn’t support it then, don’t support it now.” While Biden did oppose including nonviolent offenses and lesser crimes in the provision, he is on record at the time saying he supported a three-strikes provision for “serious [violent] felonies against a person.”

The final bill said anyone who committed a federal serious violent felony and had at least two prior convictions for federal or state serious violent felonies, or one of those being a drug distribution or trafficking offense, would then be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Biden also said, “I didn’t support more money to build state prisons. I was against it.” But Biden was for $6 billion in funding for state prison construction — not the $10 billion in the final bill. His campaign said the $4 billion difference is what he meant by “more money.”

Finally, Biden misleadingly said the crime legislation “worked in some areas. But it failed in others. … The violent crime rate was cut in half in America.” The violent crime rate dropped by 46% from 1994 to 2017, but experts say factors beyond the 1994 crime bill are responsible for most of that decrease.

Experts with the Brennan Center for Justice, for instance, wrote that the legislation likely contributed to the decrease by adding more police officers, but other factors included social and economic changes, such as an aging population.

For more on this topic, see our July 12 story “Biden and the 1994 Crime Bill.” Our past video collaborations with CNN’s “State of the Union” are available here.

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Protections for Drivers Who Hit Protesters Didn’t Pass

Quick Take

A viral post falsely asserts that Republicans are responsible for “passing laws making it legal to run over protesters with your car.” That distorts proposed, but not enacted, legislation in several states offering some protections for drivers who unintentionally injure demonstrators blocking streets.

Full Story 

Is it “legal to run over protesters with your car”?

No, but that’s what a viral meme shared on Facebook claims. The popular post blames Republicans for passing such laws in the aftermath of the deadly attack on protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.

“Never forget,” the meme reads. “When a white supremacist murdered a protester by running her over with his car, Republicans responded by passing laws making it legal to run over protesters with your car.”

That’s wrong.

Republican lawmakers in a handful of states — and with the help of Democratic legislators in one case — did introduce bills that would have afforded some protections to drivers who injure demonstrators blocking traffic. But those measures would have applied to drivers exercising “reasonable care” or “unintentionally” injuring someone who was obstructing traffic, and some were specific to civil charges. All but one that we found were proposed prior to the Charlottesville attack — not after it — and none were ultimately enacted.

The proposals came amid a flurry of various legislative attempts by states to control protests in early 2017.

A bill considered in North Dakota, for example, was introduced in January 2017, following prominent protests against an oil pipeline. That was months before a neo-Nazi plowed his car into protesters demonstrating against white nationalists in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017, killing one woman and injuring others. The driver, James Fields, was convicted in 2018 of killing Heather Heyer and has received two life sentences in prison.

The bill proposed in North Dakota’s House of Representatives said that “a driver of a motor vehicle who, while exercising reasonable care, causes injury or death to an individual who is intentionally obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway may not be held liable for any damages.” It also said a driver who “unintentionally causes injury or death to an individual who is intentionally obstructing” traffic “is not guilty of an offense.”

The measure failed on its second read in February 2017.

States that considered similar proposals include: Tennessee (introduced in February 2017), Florida (introduced in February 2017), North Carolina (introduced in March 2017), Rhode Island (introduced in March 2017), Texas (introduced in July 2017) and Kentucky (introduced in January 2018).

None of them became law.

In at least one case, the move had bipartisan support: Two Democrats were among the five lawmakers who introduced the legislation in Rhode Island.

Some of the bills used very similar language, and the wording applied specifically to unintentional cases. The measures would not have simply made it “legal to run over protesters with your car,” as the meme says.

The North Carolina, Rhode Island and Tennessee bills all applied to a driver “exercising due care” who “injures another person who is participating in a protest or demonstration and is blocking traffic” in a public street. Those measures would’ve protected the driver from only “civil liability” (not criminal charges), but not if the “actions” of the driver “leading to the injury were willful or wanton.”

In Texas, the legislation also protected against civil liability and would not have protected against drivers’ “grossly negligent conduct.” The Florida bill, meanwhile, called for punishing (with a second-degree misdemeanor) protesters who “obstruct or interfere with the regular flow of traffic” without a permit — and proposed liability protection for a driver “who unintentionally causes injury or death” to such unauthorized protesters obstructing traffic.

Kentucky’s bill, the only one we found that was introduced after Charlottesville, proposed that a driver “may not be held criminally or civilly liable for causing injury or death to a person who is obstructing or interfering with” traffic during a protest without a permit — “unless the infliction of the injury or death was intentional.”

The suite of related bills came under fire after the attack in Virginia, with some questioning the need for such legislation and claiming such efforts could provide cover for would-be attackers. Those who had pushed for the bills tried to distance the legislation from the events in Charlottesville.

“It is intellectually dishonest and a gross mischaracterization to portray North Carolina House Bill 330 as a protection measure for the act of violence that occurred in Charlottesville this past weekend,” the Republican sponsors of that bill, Reps. Justin Burr and Chris Millis, said in an August 2017 statement. “Any individual who committed a deliberate or willful act, such as what happened this weekend in Charlottesville, would face appropriately severe criminal and civil liabilities.”

So, while the Charlottesville attack did renew focus on the legislation, it was not the impetus for the proposals, as the post indicated, and those proposals did not go on to become “laws.”

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.

Sources

Florida Senate. “SB 1096, An act relating to obstruction of traffic during a protest or demonstration; creating s. 316.128, F.S.; prohibiting a person from obstructing or interfering with traffic during a certain protest or demonstration; providing criminal penalties; exempting a motor vehicle operator from liability for injury or death to a person who is obstructing or interfering with traffic under certain circumstances; specifying burden of proof; providing an effective date.” (as introduced 21 Feb 2017).

Kentucky General Assembly. “HB 53, An act relating to public protests.” (as introduced 2 Jan 2018).

North Carolina General Assembly. “HB 330, An act providing that a person driving an automobile while exercising due care is immune from civil liability for any injury to another if the injured person was participating in a protest or demonstration and blocking traffic in a public street or highway at the time of the injury.” (as amended 27 Apr 2017).

North Dakota House of Representatives. “HB 1203, A bill for an act to create and enact section 32‑03.2‑02.2 of the North Dakota Century Code, relating to the liability exemption of a motor vehicle driver; and to amend and reenact section 39‑10‑33 of the North Dakota Century Code, relating to pedestrians on roadways.” (as amended 6 Feb 2017).

Rhode Island General Assembly. “HB 5690, An act relating to motor and other vehicles – applicability of traffic regulations.” (as introduced 1 Mar 2017).

Tennessee General Assembly. “HB 0668, An act to amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 19; Title 20; Title 29, Chapter 34; Title 54 and Title 55, relative to civil liability.” (as introduced 8 Feb 2017).

Texas House of Representatives. “HB 250, An act relating to civil liability for injury of a protestor by the operator of a motor vehicle.” (as introduced 20 Jul 2017).

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