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By Douglas K. Smith, author of On Value and Values: Thinking Differently About We In An Age Of Me
As a subscriber and well wisher for the critical role that might be fulfilled by The New York Times, I’m always disappointed when Times’ journalists substitute personal agendas for accuracy. This was glaringly on view last week when three reporters butchered the chance to shed light on the Census Bureau’s new “supplemental poverty measure”.
After nearly fifty years of using a terribly flawed poverty measure – one that looks to the single yardstick of food costs as adjusted for inflation — the Census Bureau acknowledged major elements required for a more realistic picture– cash and cash equivalents received by folks through government support programs, and statistical measures for expenses incurred beyond food.
Instead of exploring the implications, strengths and weaknesses of the new measure, however, the Times’ reporters offered readers to a mostly useless piece of one-way, ‘we’re smarter than everybody else’ journalism, beginning with the headline, “Bleak Portrait Of Poverty Is Off The Mark, Experts Say.”
When I read this, my first thought was “C’mon Man!” (For NC readers who are not football fans, “C’mon Man!” is an ESPN-coined expression commentators use to call out egregiously bad performances by players, coaches, officials, or fans. A personal favorite: referees incorrectly calling a point after touchdown ‘good’ – even after the officials looked at the video replay showing the kick missed. C’mon Man!)
So, sports fans, here’s the highlight reel from the Times’ article:
When the Census Bureau said in September that the number of poor Americans had soared by 10 million to rates rarely seen in four decades, commentators called the report “shocking” and “bleak.” Most poverty experts would add another description: “flawed.”
Slick juxtaposition moment: By contrasting ‘flawed’ with ‘rates rarely seen in four decades’, ‘shocking’ and ‘bleak”, the reporters suggest that poverty is neither shocking nor bleak nor operating at rates ‘rarely seen’. Fact: The official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.2% — a number seen just one single time in the previous forty years. In normal English: ‘rarely seen’. Fact: The new Supplemental Measure of Poverty for 2010 is 16% — that is, even higher than the official rate. One might call this ‘bleak’.
Back to the Times:
Concocted on the fly a half-century ago, the official poverty measure ignores ever more of what is happening to the poor person’s wallet — good and bad. It overlooks hundreds of billions of dollars the needy receive in food stamps and other benefits and the similarly formidable amounts they lose to taxes and medical care. It even fails to note that rents are higher in places like Manhattan than they are in Mississippi.
One-way journalism rules: First, you note specific aspects supporting your agenda (here: recognizing the hundreds of billions received in government support), then turn any inconvenient element on its head (here: instead of acknowledging, say, the hundreds of billions in expenses not recognized by the historic measure, one way journalists must offer a flip remark aimed at reinforcing the agenda that poverty is overstated because, well, rents aren’t so high in some places as others. Preferably do this with alliteration.)
Back to the Times:
The numbers in this article are based on that research — by the census, the National Academy of Sciences and others — and include not just cash income but also government benefits, work expenses, taxes and cost of living. Many experts expect Monday’s census report, based on similar methods, to add a bit to the official poverty count of 46.2 million, while most experts also expect the recent growth will appear less steep.
Pangloss (‘we live in best of all possible worlds’) moment: The Supplemental Measure points to over 49 million Americans living in poverty – almost three million more than the number reported in the Times. Not to worry though: that’s just ‘a bit’.
“We’re actually not as smart as we think we are” moment: Neil deMause at City Limits called out the Times’ ‘too clever by half’ reasoning about recent growth not being so bad: “[The new measures] indicate that poverty was much higher than reported back in 2006—and if things were that bad then, they didn’t have as far to rise. Voila: Half the increase in poverty over the last five years ‘disappears.’ [But] this isn’t an indicator that things are better now … so much as that things were much worse during the last decade than anyone knew.”
One-way journalism’s rules for examples: Again, make sure you have an anecdote about someone counted poor in the old way but not in the new way. The Times’ tells us about Angelique Melton and her two children. After losing her full-time job and taking a part-time, low paying position at Wal-Mart, Ms. Melton slipped into ‘official’ poverty. But, the Times’ notes she’s not poor by the new measure. Just one problem: according to Rakim Brooks of Policy Shop, the Times’ reporters got their numbers wrong and Ms. Melton is still poor.
The Times’ proceeds to offer the counter example of 69-year-old John William Springs who was not counted as poor the old way, but is in the new – then helps readers see that this counter example is, well, actually not so bad by providing a colorful, agenda-supporting quote from Mr. Springs:
An upbeat survivor of a lifetime of need, Mr. Springs fills his prescriptions in partial amounts and argues the poverty counters got him right the first time.
“I ain’t poor,” he said. “I eat. I got a roof over my head.”
One-way journalism’s rules for citing experts: First, get a good quote from an ideologue whose agenda is even more extreme than your own. In this case, Robert Rector of uber-right wing Richard Scaife’s Heritage Foundation let’s readers know that the new measure “sharply overstate(s) the amount of deprivation in the United States” because “government data showing many poor families had game systems like Xbox.”
Then, be sure to avoid any mention whatsoever of opposing views from the other end of the spectrum – even if people with those views have gone out of their way to contact you. Shawn Fremstad of The Center for Economic and Policy Research writes that he contacted the Times’ reporters prior to their article to provide background on how best to interpret the new Supplemental Measure. Evidently, his information didn’t ‘fit’ the story. They ignored him.
Look, it’s good news that the government has recognized both the added supplemental supports as well as non-food related expenses in figuring out who and how many folks are poor. Still, serious questions remain:
First, and most subtly, as Fremstad notes, when the food-only measure was established, the poverty line was set at 50 percent of median income. Over many decades since then the inflation-only adjustments failed to recognize increases mainstream living standards – pushing the line down to 30%, not 50%, of median income. Other countries continue to use the 50% mark. But we don’t; nor does the new Supplemental Measure. That means the ‘added cash in and added expenses out” adjustments start against an artificially low base. So, the overall real picture of poverty is worse. Just do a bit of math here. If 50% is a more accurate starting point, then the use of 30% lowers the starting point of poverty by two-fifths (20 over 50). It’s no surprise, then, that dozens of government support programs for years have set thresholds at 130%, 150% and even 200% of the official poverty level.
Second, the numerical adjustments reflecting added support from government programs are easier to calculate than it is to put dollar amounts on non-food expenses such as child care, housing, utilities, clothing, transportation and medical costs. Moreover, nothing is included for interest costs on debt; and, only actual out-of-pocket medical costs are counted (meaning skipped medical care is of no recognized value for the poor – a huge policy glitch). In other words, the new measure understates actual poverty.
Third, and of utmost importance in our highly politicized culture: if Scaife’s Heritage Foundation – and their too many right wing and centrist fellow travelers get their way (whether under the rubric of ‘they have Xboxes’ or ‘austerity), then the cash supports currently counted will diminish and/or disappear.
But the expenses –for food and non-food items alike – cannot be legislated away. Meaning, tens of millions of poor and near-poor Americans remain more hostage than ever to corporate-controlled government.
Readers of the Times, though, didn’t learn anything about any of these points because the reporters were too busy adding heat instead of light to our understanding of extreme income inequality.