Wagner and Kristof speak: Where do facts about poverty come from? We wondered last night as we watched Alex Wagner discussing the State of the Union.
Obama had proposed a higher minimum wage. Rachel asked Alex to comment. To watch the full segment, click this:
MADDOW (2/12/13): Joining us now is Alex Wagner. She’s host of Now with Alex Wagner. Alex, I think the president made news on this point. Is this a realistic policy goal? Do you expect him to get the attraction from Congress on this?We were struck by Wagner’s factual claim, although we’ve seen similar claims in the past. “One in two American families live at or near the poverty line?” Is that an actual fact?
WAGNER: I don’t know, Rachel. I mean, it was really shocking to me that the Republicans couldn’t stand up for, you know, for equal pay. They couldn’t stand up for a fair voting system in the U.S. To see them agree to $9 an hour would seem to be like—it would seem to be a jump for them.
But at the same time, this is the story of America right now. It is one of the most under-discussed issues in the country—the fact that one in two American families live at or near the poverty line. The fact that the federal poverty measure is $23,000, $24,000 a year for a family. These are unlivable wages. And to some degree, it should not be shocking that the president would take this up as a matter of discourse on the national stage.
The word “near” is rather amorphous, of course. With that in mind, let’s review what Nicholas Kristof recently said about poverty.
Kristof is now on book leave from the New York Times. In a column shortly before his departure, he made this claim about poverty in the U.S.:
KRISTOF (1/24/13): American assistance programs, from housing support to food stamps, have had an impact, and poverty among the elderly has fallen in particular (they vote in high numbers, so government programs tend to cater to them). But, too often, such initiatives have addressed symptoms of poverty, not causes.That highlighted claim struck us as implausible, but we’ve never studied poverty statistics. Is the poverty rate really higher than it was under Johnson?
Since President Lyndon Johnson declared a ''war on poverty,'' the United States has spent some $16 trillion or more on means-tested programs. Yet the proportion of Americans living beneath the poverty line, 15 percent, is higher than in the late 1960s in the Johnson administration.
What accounts for the cycles of poverty that leave so many people mired in the margins, and how can we break these cycles?
In this case, someone came along and declared this fact to be semi-bogus—or something. On February 6, Robert Greenstein challenged Kristof in a letter. His letter served as last week’s “Invitation to a Dialogue” in the Times.
Greenstein is president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He is generally regarded as one of DC’s best-informed inhabitants:
GREENSTEIN (2/6/13): Nicholas D. Kristof is clearly right: Too many young children from poor families face diminished opportunities by the time they're just 2 years old, and we should do more to help them overcome the formidable obstacles before them. But his portrayal of today's safety net deserves a broader look.Oops. That still doesn’t tell us what the actual poverty rate is as compared to where it was under Johnson.
Noting that the ''official'' poverty rate is no lower today than in the late 1960s, Mr. Kristof said our anti-poverty programs largely address symptoms of poverty without reducing poverty itself.
But the official poverty measure considers only cash income in determining whether a family is poor. It counts cash welfare payments, which have fallen dramatically since the late 1960s, but not benefits like food stamps and the earned-income tax credit, which provide much more assistance now than then.
The government's more comprehensive poverty measure that counts these other benefits shows that safety-net programs now cut the number of poor people nearly in half—by more than 40 million—compared with where the nation would be without these programs.
Poverty facts can be hard! Reading the new Education Week, we found reporter Sarah Sparks saying this in a front-page report:
SPARKS (2/6/13): In schools with fewer than one in four students in poverty, Michigan State’s Ms. Wright found teachers explained the meanings of nine [vocabulary] words per day, compared with only six words a day in schools with a majority of students in poverty. Similarly, teachers in wealthier schools discussed the meaning of five challenging words per day, compared with only three challenging words per day in higher-poverty schools.By the end of that second sentence, we were completely confused by Sparks’ logic. That said, should Sparks have been citing the number of students “in poverty?” We can’t find the text of Wright’s study on-line—but this is the problem:
Education journalists often talk about “poverty” when they really mean something like “low income.” Education statistics generally measure the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—and the cut-off point for the federal lunch program is much higher than the poverty line.
Where do facts about poverty come from? Wagner’s fact may have come from a report like this one from CBS News, which said that “a record number of Americans—nearly 1 in 2—have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income.” In that report from December 2011, “low income” was defined as “roughly $45,000 for a family of four.” That’s roughly double the family income Wagner cited last night.
Where do facts about poverty come from? We’ll only say this: When we liberals give you the facts about poverty, we may be inclined to overstate, as education reporters often do. We may be inclined to mislead the rubes, much like The Other Tribe does.
In our case, of course, it’s for a good cause—that is the obvious difference. At any rate, our discussions of poverty proceed in this way. Voters have no virtually way to know which facts are actually accurate.