MSM falls for “New Coke” poverty con

Mickey Kaus Columnist
Font Size:

You know those headlines you read recently?

Census: U.S. Poverty Rate Spikes, Nearly 50 Million Americans Affected

 Alternative Measure Sees More People Living in Poverty

Millions More Americans Living in Poverty Than Previously Estimated: Census Bureau

The new poverty measure is out and it’s grim

The headlines are all based on the Obama Administration’s new “supplemental” poverty line. “New” is not necessarily “improved.”

The regular old, still-official poverty line is simple and understandable. It is the level that bought a minimal market basket of food in 1963-4, adjusted for subsequent inflation and multiplied by three.  As such it measures what people think a poverty line measures–how many people fall below certain absolute living standards, whether basic human needs are being met. We’ve been using it for decades, so while it may be too high or too low people have a rough feel for what it is and what it isn’t.

The new “supplemental” poverty line is a complicated measure produced by formulas that are barely understood by poverty experts. It takes into account in-kind government benefits, which is fine, and regional costs-of-living. But at its core it is a deception: it measures not absolute poverty but relative poverty–i.e. inequality.

It’s pegged to the expenditures of the 33d percentile rather than a fixed  amount of purchasing power  …Under the old poverty line, “poverty” could be eliminated as society got richer–an achievable and widely  shared goal. But the new poverty line will rise as society gets  richer (“adjust for rising levels and standards of living”). The newly measured poor will always be with us in substantial numbers … That will yield a permanent,  inextinguishable stream of NYT front page “poverty” stat stories–even  if  “poverty” no longer means ”poverty” in the sense we now understand  the term.

The only way to reduce poverty under the new, relative measure–as Robert Rector notes–is to have those at the  bottom gain income faster than those around the 33d  percentile. The Times‘ favorite “poverty” line  is now a measure of inequality, not absolute want–when its moral and  political force derives largely because it’s thought of as a measure of  absolute want, not inequality. If I were inclined to be paranoid–and I  am–I’d say it’s an audacious, slimy bait-and-switch by liberal activists  inside the government anti-poverty bureacracy.

Of course, the activists and bureaucrats can only get away with it if the MSM cluelessly or deceptively reports the new “supplemental” numbers as if they were simply a more precise version of the regular poverty numbers. And we know the MSM … well, OK, that’s not much of a roadblock. In fact, the MSM has fallen for the New Poverty con like Taylor Swift at a Kennedy clambake!  It’s almost as if they’re in on the conspiracy! None of the stories linked above notes the controversial, qualitiative difference between the two poverty measures–not even the Washington Post’s self-proclaimed “Wonkblog.” What good is a wonkblog if it doesn’t tell you what the numbers it reports mean (and how the measurements might have been politicized)? …

Most scandalously, the Census’ own official press release explanation doesn’t let Americans in on the secret of the new numbers. The key paragraph begins:

“There are several important differences between the official and supplemental poverty measures,” said Kathleen Short, a U.S. Census Bureau economist and the report’s author …

Short then talks about adjusting for geographic differences in housing costs, while the release adds, “here are two other major differences …” Those differences, we’re told, are including the ” value of in-kind benefits” such as food stamps, and deducting the cost of “necessary expenses” like taxes and medical care. Apparently it’s not a “major difference” that the measure people thought was a measure of absolute poverty is now a “quasi-relative” measure of money inequality.**

Maybe it’s just me, but the Census’s deception seems more flagrant than anything Susan Rice did in the wake of the Benghazi attacks. They can’t say they were badly briefed. It’s their report. Like General Petraeus, they know what they did.

If Republicans weren’t shellshocked they might make an issue of this. …

P.S.: Here is veteran federal poverty analyst Richard Bavier’s short screed, posted on the Brookings Institution website, describing how the New Poverty Line is “carefully designed so that the public will think it is one thing when it really is something else.”


** — Short’s full Census report also hides the ball. I could only find one bit of language even indirectly acknowledging that the New Poverty Line rises as the income distribution rises–a buried, opaque sentence saying, “Adjustments to thresholds … reflect real change in expenditures … at the 33rd percentile of the expenditure distribution.”

Mickey Kaus