Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?

Mickey Kaus looks at this table:

Table 22. Number and Percent of People Below
50 Percent of Poverty Level: 1975 to 2005

 _____________________________________
 Year         Total    Number  Percent
 _____________________________________
 2005......  293,135   15,928      5.4
 2004 14/..  290,617   15,693      5.4
 2003......  287,699   15,264      5.3
 2002......  285,317   14,068      4.9
 2001......  281,475   13,440      4.8
 2000 12/..  278,944   12,592      4.5
 1999 11/..  276,208   12,887      4.7
 1998......  271,059   13,914      5.1
 1997......  268,480   14,594      5.4
 1996......  266,218   14,412      5.4
 1995......  263,733   13,892      5.3
 1994......  261,616   15,404      5.9
 1993 10/..  259,278   15,971      6.2
 1992 9/...  256,549   15,547      6.1
 1991 8/...  251,192   14,059      5.6
 1990......  248,644   12,914      5.2
 1989......  245,992   11,983      4.9
 1988......  243,530   12,676      5.2
 1987 7/...  240,982   12,469      5.2
 1986......  238,554   12,677      5.3
 1985......  236,594   12,380      5.2
 1984......  233,816   12,770      5.5
 1983 6/...  231,700   13,590      5.9
 1982......  229,412   12,806      5.6
 1981 5/...  227,157   11,189      4.9
 1980......  225,027    9,804      4.4
 1979 4/...  222,903    8,553      3.8
 1978......  215,656    7,708      3.6
 1977......  213,867    7,474      3.5
 1976......  212,303    7,016      3.3
 1975......  210,864    7,733      3.7

and catches Eric Alterman in a mistake:

Maybe Cocooning Is Easy!: Eric Alterman, in a post titled "Extreme Poverty is US," writes (quoting today's NYT poverty numbers story):

Again, moreover, "although the numbers living below the poverty line held steady between 2004 and 2005, there has been a sharp increase in those living in extreme poverty."

That's funny, because if you look at the Census numbers, they show... a jump of... well, zero from 2004 [in extreme poverty].... I contend that "zero" is not a "sharp increase."... Alterman... [is] quoting... NYT reporter Rick Lyman paraphrasing "advocates for the poor"--specifically Robert Greenstein, whose influential outfit (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) specializes in devising esoteric measurements to suggest that good poverty news is really bad poverty news...

But what is the "good poverty news" in the Census Bureau's report? What is the "good poverty news" in this table?

Is it that there are more people in extreme poverty than in any year since 1993? Is it that the proportion of Americans in extreme poverty is greater than in any year since 1997? Is it that the extreme poverty rate is 0.9%--2,336,000 people--higher than in 2000, at the last business cycle peak?

Is it that the overall poverty rate stands at 12.6%, 0.1% less than last year? Is it that the overall numbers in poverty stand at 36,950,000, 50,000 less than last year? Is it that 5,369,000 more people were poor last year than at the last business cycle peak, in 2000? Is it that the poverty rate is higher than in any year from 1999 to 2003 or from 1969 to 1979? Is it that the number of people in poverty this year and last year is greater than in any year since 1994?

If you parse Kaus closely, he doesn't actually say that there is "good poverty news." He talks about how Bob Greenstein "specializes in... suggest[ing] that good poverty news is really bad poverty news" and about how Eric "Alterman [got] his bogus spin." He wants his readers to think that there is a whole bunch of good poverty news that is being spun as bad, but he doesn't actually say so.

This is, I think, a reason why the only people who should read this stuff are trained professionals who already know the issues very well (and hence learn nothing at all from Kaus and his ilk). They won't lie to you--quite. They will do their best to leave you with a misleading impression--in this case, that the Census Bureau's poverty report was good poverty news that is being spun as bad. And it will probably work--unless you're a trained professional.


Here's what Lyman reports from Bob Greenstein:

Census Reports Slight Increase in %u201905 Incomes - New York Times: advocates for the poor pointed out that, although the numbers living below the poverty line held steady between 2004 and 2005, there has been a sharp increase in those living in extreme poverty. The average person living in poverty actually earned $3,236 less than the poverty line -- $19,971 for a household of four -- in 2005, the highest such gap ever measured by the Census Bureau, said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research group. And 43 percent of the poor earned less than half of the poverty limit, Mr. Greenstein said, again the highest such percentage ever recorded.

"This is further evidence that the nation's economic recovery has had very limited reach, with many low- and medium-income families not sharing in the game," he said...

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