Neediest Cases, II
November 26, 2000
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The New York Times this morning kicks off its annual "Neediest Cases" campaign with an editorial and with an article on the front of the metro section. The editorial tells us, in a stroke of candor, that "the percentage of people living in poverty, nationwide" has dropped to the lowest percentage in 21 years.
This may account for the Times' decision to choose as the kickoff example of its "Neediest Cases" Pierre Blain. Mr. Blain is pictured in a photograph in today's Times in his apartment, posed in front of a television set with a screen larger than those found in many suburban multiplex movie theaters. It's really almost comical: this guy, with his large-screen TV, his telephone bill and his $193.12 electric bill, is the "neediest" case the Times can come up with? The Times photo cut-line tells us that Mr. Blain's television, "bought before he lost his feet, does not work." But still. Why did this guy buy a large-screen TV instead of health insurance? Why doesn't he try to sell the monster set to someone who can fix it?
The Times article further makes the claim that Mr. Blain "is part of a population of poor people that is expanding despite the continuing economic boom." This is just flat-out not true. The population of poor people in New York and in America is not expanding. Even the Times editorial acknowledges this, but the Times news story for some reason feels constrained to deny it.
The evidence the Times news article offers up for the supposed increase in poverty in New York is "a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington." That study, the Times says, shows that "the poverty rate for New York State increased to 16.6 percent in 1997-98, from 13 percent nine years earlier." The Times doesn't mention that the Economic Policy Institute is a left-wing, labor-backed think tank that supports bigger government and higher taxes. The Times doesn't explain why it is choosing to use statistics from 1997-98 rather than more recent statistics. It doesn't explain why it chooses to compare the current statistics with those of "nine years earlier," when America was at the peak of an economic boom that resulted from the economic policies of President Reagan. Why nine years earlier and not six years earlier or 70 years earlier or one year earlier? And the Times doesn't explain why it is relying on statistics from a cornball study by a left-wing think tank rather than those from the U.S. Census Bureau, which is in the business of estimating state and county poverty levels based on surveys, census data, income tax returns and information about food stamp recipients and Supplemental Security Income recipients.
If the Times had bothered to check that U.S. Census data, it would have found that in New York State, the most recent poverty statistic is a 15.7 percent poverty rate, which represents a three-year average from 1997 to 1999. That is down from the 16.6 percent poverty rate for New York State from 1996 to 1998. It is down from the 16.6 percent poverty rate in New York for 1995 to 1997. It is down from the 16.7 percent poverty rate in New York from 1994 to 1996. It is down from the 16.6 percent poverty rate in New York from 1993 to 1995. It is down from the 16.4 percent poverty rate in New York from 1992 to 1994. In other words, these rolling averages just plain contradict the notion that the Times news story is promoting, that the population of poor people is "expanding."
Another batch of U.S. Census estimates also undermines the claim made in the Times news story. These statistics estimate the number of poor persons in Mr. Blain's home borough of Brooklyn, N.Y., or, as the census bureau refers to it, Kings County. In 1997, the most recent year for which the census has estimates by county available on its web site, there were 605, 959 poor persons in Brooklyn. In 1995, there were 665,680. In 1993, there were 729,236. In other words, though the Times news story claims the "population of poor people" is "expanding," in Brooklyn alone there are about 125,000 fewer poor persons than there were in 1993.
Even those numbers vastly overstate the poverty level, because they count only monetary income before taxes and they exclude capital gains. By this measure, home equity is excluded, as is the earned income tax credit and the value of food stamps, federally subsidized public housing, Medicare, Medicaid and subsidized school lunches. A 1999 analysis by the census bureau that took into account the earned income tax credit and other means-tested government transfers decreased the number of persons below poverty level nationwide to 18.9 million from 28.9 million.
As a result, those in the poverty business have invented a new category called the "near poor." This allows them to claim, disingenuously, that the numbers of the poor and near poor are growing, when what is really happening is that poor people are getting jobs because of welfare reform and as a result are no longer poor. So, for instance, the New York Times article today quotes the chief executive of the UJA-Federation of New York, John Ruskay, as saying that "the number of New Yorkers living at or within 25 percent of the federal poverty level are growing at an alarming rate." Mr. Ruskay asks, dramatically, "Are we going to turn our backs on these people?"
No one wants to turn their backs on these people, but it does them no service to exaggerate their plight in a way that is unsupported by the facts. There's nothing alarming about the decline in the number of the poor that New York has seen recently because of the strong economy and because of welfare reform and even, to give credit where credit is due, because of some of the job-training and rehabilitation programs supported by the Times Neediest Cases Fund and its beneficiary agencies. If there has been an increase in the number of those "within 25 percent of the federal poverty level," it is likely the result of those who have climbed out of poverty because they have gotten jobs. That's not "alarming"; it's encouraging.
In addition to the strange choice of Mr. Big-Screen TV as the "neediest" case and the unsupported claim that the ranks of the poor are "expanding," today's Neediest Cases news story also makes the claim that "The Times does not solicit contributions" to the Neediest Cases fund. The same issue has a graphic stating "Checks payable to The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund should be sent to P.O. Box. . ." and an editorial saying, "Your contributions, which are deductible on federal, state and city income taxes to the extent permitted by law, are warmly encouraged and appreciated." If this doesn't constitute a solicitation, what does?
Dog Days: The Times magazine today prints in its "Lives" column an article with the subheadline, "As a kid, I swindled unsuspecting pet owners on the Upper East Side. I have no regrets." It's a classic example of the Times view of race, class and crime in New York, and of everything that is wrong with that view.
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