“Clinton was right—63 percent of young Republicans, compared to only 45 percent of young Democrats had signed on to their parents’ plan, something they couldn’t have done without passage of Obama’s law.”
—PolitiFact, Sept. 5, 2013
PolitiFact grades the literal interpretation of a trivial claim “True,” and passes a stinker of an underlying argument off on its readers.
During a health care speech on Sept. 4, 2013, former President Bill Clinton claimed that more young Republicans than Democrats have signed up for coverage under their parents’ insurance policies. The next day, PolitiFact published a fact check of Clinton’s claim, finding the claim “True” on its trademark “Truth-O-Meter.”
Clinton mentioned concerns that the number of young healthy people buying insurance would prove insufficient to keep premiums from jumping, then (at the 42:50 mark of the video) made the statement PolitiFact checked :
A recent study by the Commonwealth Fund at least suggests that this may not happen. First, large numbers of young people, aged 26 and younger, have already enrolled in their parents’ plans. And, interestingly enough—if I were you guys I’d promote this—is, uh, say these Republicans are the personal responsibility party—there are more young Republicans enrolled in their families’ plans than young Democrats.
What does the Commonwealth Fund report say? For starters, it estimates the total American population in the 19-26 age range at about 30 million, and says about half of the 15 million insured under their parents’ policies were eligible thanks to the Affordable Care Act.
The report also says that in 2013 more young Republicans than Democrats signed up or renewed under their parents’ policies. So Clinton’s right on that point, but PolitiFact took Clinton’s point a step further:
So, Clinton was right — 63 percent of young Republicans, compared to only 45 percent of young Democrats had signed on to their parents’ plan, something they couldn’t have done without passage of Obama’s law.
PolitiFact says the Republicans used the ACA’s change in adult child eligibility at a higher rate than Democrats.
Analyzing the Rhetoric
Clinton’s obviously right that the Commonwealth Fund survey shows that Republicans aged 19-26 were more likely than Democrats of the same age group to sign up under their parents’ insurance, albeit it’s probably not an apples-to-apples comparison. But PolitiFact is wrong to conclude that the Republican 63 percent could not have signed up under their parents’ insurance without the ACA.
The Commonwealth Fund report was clear in estimating that nearly half of the entire group signing up under their parents’ insurance could have done it without the healthcare reform law:
Of the 15 million young adults on a parent’s plan, an estimated 7.8 million likely would not have been eligible to enroll in that plan prior to the Affordable Care Act (Exhibit 1).
The survey provides no information regarding the partisan divide just for the group of young adults eligible under their parents’ insurance because of the ACA. Perhaps the same percentage holds for that sub-population. But perhaps it doesn’t, and either way the margin of error for the survey grows as the size of the population in each subcategory shrinks. In short, PolitiFact offers deeply flawed evidence for its claim.
Whose underlying argument?
PolitiFact speciously argues that 63 percent of Republicans signing up under their parents’ insurance gained that opportunity from the ACA. And PolitiFact created its own underlying argument suggesting the 63 percent shows hypocrisy for opposing the ACA yet taking advantage of its benefits.
Clinton didn’t make that argument. He suggested calling out the Republicans for falling short on their standard of self-sufficiency. So where did the hypocrisy argument have its origin?
We can see evidence of it throughout PolitiFact’s fact check. PolitiFact calls Clinton’s statistic “juicy” in the lede paragraph and a few paragraphs later offers this subjective interpretation of Clinton’s speech:
The irony that young supporters of the GOP — the party that has repeatedly tried to repeal or defund Obama’s law — are actually using this part of the law more than young Democrats are led to chuckles in the audience.
As noted above, Clinton offered a different source for irony, that the young GOP represents itself as the party of personal responsibility yet leeches off its parents. How does PolitiFact reach the conclusion that the audience laughed at an irony other than the one Clinton pointed toward?
Republican hypocrisy on the ACA?
Is it hypocritical or ironic to oppose the ACA yet take advantage of its expansion of adult child coverage?
We don’t see a good case for hypocrisy, basing our skepticism first on the fact that adult child eligibility is a minor part of the ACA, and second on the lack of any attempt to make an apples-to-apples comparison between the political groups and their use of their parents’ insurance.
The Washington Post Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff reports that the lead author of the Commonwealth Fund study, Sara R. Collins, links Republicans to the ACA’s expanded adult child coverage because young Republicans showed a large jump of awareness of the coverage expansion with an increase also noted among lower-income earners. So Collins associates awareness of the adult child coverage provision with taking advantage of the provision.
We sent some questions about the study and PolitiFact’s portrayal of it to Collins but received no response.
An examination of the data shows a varied and complex set of correlations. We highlight some of the most notable ones:
Young adults with health problems and lower education were among the demographics most likely to increase their use parents’ policies to receive insurance coverage. With respect to political affiliation, both Republicans and Independents signed up under their parents insurance at an increased rate, while the rate among Democrats dropped. Why did the rate drop among Democrats? The answer to that question, whatever it is, carries the key to understanding the reasons behind the increases we see for Republicans and Independents.
With a number of significant correlative factors in play other than political affiliation, we have no assurance at all of an apples-to-apples comparison and no solid evidence of Republican hypocrisy.
“Clinton was right—63 percent of young Republicans, compared to only 45 percent of young Democrats had signed on to their parents’ plan.”
Clinton’s claim rings literally true, though in context it’s a claim PolitiFact uses as the fulcrum for a bad argument suggesting Republican hypocrisy. The Commonwealth Fund study suggests white women with high school education or lower, poor health and Republican Party registration are likely to have insurance under their parents’ policies. Without evidence to prevent an apples-to-oranges comparison for political affiliation, the argument will likely result in a Texas sharpshooter fallacy.
“[Signing on to their parents’ plans is] something they couldn’t have done without passage of Obama’s law.”
It’s possible to read PolitiFact’s claim as true by granting the most charitable interpretation: One must assume that PolitiFact tried to communicate that some of the Republicans surveyed couldn’t have signed up under their parents’ plans without the ACA. But the Commonwealth Fund report makes very clear that many were eligible regardless of the ACA. Omitting that information makes PolitiFact guilty of one-sidedness. PolitiFact’s ambiguity leads readers to assume the ACA was responsible for the full number of Republicans aged 19-25 who signed up for insurance under their parents’ policies.
Afterword: Was Clinton’s argument coherent?
Clinton’s argument that young Republicans demonstrate a lack of personal responsibility by signing up for insurance under their parents’ policies suffers the same types of problems as the hypocrisy argument PolitiFact presented. The survey data simply don’t give us enough information to support the argument. If the percentage for Democrats is lower because the Democrats found jobs that provide insurance, for example, then the argument has some support. But simply going without insurance doesn’t necessarily indicate a higher degree of personal responsibility. The data, as presented in the report, don’t point us in either direction.
The report’s Appendix Table 2 contains data about the number of people who did not carry insurance at all over the past year. That table does not include the categories for the sex or political affiliation of respondents.
In short, the Commonwealth Fund survey does not provide good support for the argument that young Republicans show a lower degree of personal responsibility than Democrats regarding their health insurance choices.
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