Thursday, August 31, 2006

Playing with Poverty

Mickey Kaus disects Eric Alterman's complaints about the newly released poverty numbers. (Go to Kaus' site for more links.):

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 that the percent of people living in extreme poverty--defined as below 50 percent of the poverty line--was 5.4 percent in 2005, a jump of ... well, zero from 2004, when the rate was also 5.4 percent. I contend that "zero" is not a "sharp increase." ...
That sounds about right to me. But there's more:

So how did Alterman get his bogus spin? What he's quoting is 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. Lyman's next paragraph reported:

And 43 percent of the poor earned less than half of the poverty limit, Mr. Greenstein said, again the highest such percentage ever recorded.
Those may be the highest percentages of the poor ever recorded, but what does that mean if the absolute number of people in "deep poverty" didn't really increase? I think it means that there were fewer other kinds of poor people!
Read the whole thing for the details. What this essentially means is that the upper half of the poor population ceased being poor but the bottom half remained where they were. It is commonly accepted (although not publicly admitted by people in the poverty industry) that a certain percent of poor people can't be helped because they don't want to change the factors -- such as drug use or sexual promiscuity -- that are keeping them poor. If this percent "rises" with respect to the total number of poor, that essentially means that the system is helping everyone that can be helped.

By analogy, if you have three people in a boat adrift at sea and one dead body, the percentage of people that can't be saved is 25%. If someone rescues the other three, that percent "jumps" to 100%. Without seeing the raw numbers in Lyman's figures, I am inclined to believe something like this is happening with the poverty numbers.