Whitewashing the bad econ news


New figures for 2007 are grim, no matter how the press is reporting them.

Pay no nevermind to the stream of new stories bringing glimmers of good news about how Americans are faring in the last stages of the Bush Era.

The facts and figures for 2007 about who’s living in poverty and who doesn’t have health insurance and whose wages have shrunk are coursing through the Web right now, courtesy of the Census Bureau.

And these factoids are being misplayed left and right. Practically all of the media are simply rewriting the Census Bureau’s press release.

You have to go straight to people who cut through the bullshit — and that includes the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Catholic Charities USA — if you want the straight scoop.

First, let’s note, as most of the current stories de-emphasize — that almost 40 million Americans are living in poverty. That doesn’t include the millions who are simply poor. As I noted on August 18, the federal poverty line is absurdly low.

As for the misplaying and downplaying of gloomy figures in today’s coverage (which you’ll see splashed across the media tonight and tomorrow), you’ll have to plow through my fairly lengthy explanation with examples (sorry about that), but this is what I mean:

Judging by the AP account — which no doubt will be picked up by practically every other media outlet in the U.S. — the Census Bureau’s latest figures for 2007 seem like fairly good news. Here’s the AP:

The Census Bureau reports that the number of people lacking health insurance dropped by more than 1 million in 2007, the first annual decline since the Bush administration took office.

The nation’s poverty rate held steady at 12.5 percent, not statistically different from the 12.3 percent in 2006. That meant there were 37.3 million people living in poverty in 2007.

The statistics released Tuesday do not take into account the consequences of the economic downturn that began late last year.

Census says 45.7 million people — 15.3 percent of the population — were uninsured in 2007. That’s down from 47 million in 2006.

The median — or midpoint — household income rose slightly to $50,200, marking the third consecutive annual increase.

As I write, the New York Times hasn’t deigned to post anything yet. But the L.A. Times already has this:

‘Health insurance coverage in U.S. rises’

The number of people in the United States without health insurance fell to 45.7 million in 2007 from 47 million a year earlier, primarily because of an expansion in government-provided coverage for children, the U.S. Census Bureau said today.

Real median household income climbed for a third year in 2007, up 1.3% to $50,233, according to the annual census report on income, poverty and health insurance coverage.

Meanwhile, the U.S. poverty rate remained statistically unchanged at 12.5% in 2007, with 37.3 million living in poverty, up from 36.5 million a year earlier.

The rate of people without health insurance declined to 15.3% in 2007, down from 15.8% a year earlier. Census officials attributed the unexpected dip to the rise in the number of children, particularly poor children, receiving government-sponsored health coverage.

“This is the main reason for the fall in the uninsured rate for children and for the fall in the overall uninsured rate,” said David Johnson, a census official. “The fall in private insurance was similar to recent years. That fall was offset by the rise in government insurance.”

A little better, though the headline is misleading because private insurance has actually fallen.

In any case, here’s the real story — from the CBPP’s Robert Greenstein:

Despite modest improvements in overall median income and health insurance coverage, the new Census data are disquieting. Though 2007 was the sixth (and likely the final) year of an economic expansion, poverty was significantly higher, the median income of non-elderly households significantly lower, and the number and percentage of Americans who are uninsured substantially greater than in 2001 — even though the economy was in recession that year.

This is unprecedented. Never before on record has poverty been higher and median income for working-age households lower at the end of a multi-year economic expansion than at the beginning. The new data add to the mounting evidence that the gains from the 2001-2007 expansion were concentrated among high-income Americans.

Greenstein continues with a shrewd analysis that the standard media outlets simply won’t ever do with such facts and figs:

Compared to 2006, overall median household income edged up 1.3 percent in 2007. Median income for “working age” households — those headed by someone under 65 — remained statistically unchanged, however, and the number (although not the percentage) of Americans living in poverty increased by 816,000 people to 37.3 million.

In addition, the number of children living in poverty jumped by 500,000 to 13.3 million, and the child poverty rate climbed from 17.4 percent in 2006 to 18.0 percent in 2007. There was some welcome news on child health insurance – the number of children lacking health insurance declined in 2007, but it remained 400,000 above the number of children who lacked insurance three years earlier, in 2004.

Greenstein’s analysis continues with worse news on a broader front:

The data for 2007 are of particular concern given that the economy is now in a slowdown, and poverty is almost certainly higher now — and incomes lower — than in 2007. The 2007 levels — already disappointing because they are worse than those for the 2001 recession — are likely to constitute a high-water mark for the next few years. This suggests that significant pain may lie ahead for many Americans.

The number and percentage of Americans who are uninsured also are likely to rise in 2008, and probably in 2009 as well given widespread forecasts that unemployment is likely to continue rising at least through the first part of that year. The numbers of uninsured parents and children are likely to grow as employers lay off more workers and states consider cuts in their Medicaid programs to help balance their budgets during the economic slowdown. Congress and the President can help cushion this blow — and avert cuts in Medicaid that further swell the ranks of the uninsured — by temporarily boosting federal support for state Medicaid programs as they did during the last downturn. Policymakers also could reconsider children’s health legislation. The nation missed an excellent opportunity to make major progress in reducing the number of uninsured children when President Bush twice vetoed legislation last year that the Congressional Budget Office estimated would result in 4 million uninsured children gaining coverage.

More broadly, the next President and Congress should consider setting a national goal to reduce poverty and acting upon it, as former Prime Minister Tony Blair did in the United Kingdom. A number of charitable organizations and poverty experts have called for establishing a national goal to cut poverty in half over the coming decade.

Pretty good, and the CBPP gives you a link to the figures themselves.

Also good at plucking the right stats from those figures, Catholic Charities USA picks some that count:

Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, issued the following statement regarding new statistics released today by the U.S. Census Bureau that show 800,000 more people are living in poverty in the United States:

“It is unacceptable that in a nation that is as prosperous as ours that 37.3 million people, including 13.3 million children, continue to live in poverty. This increase indicates that reducing poverty is not a priority for this nation.”