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Facts for the Hacks

It's Crunch Time for Poverty Numbers


Posted Monday, September 27, 1999

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        An important set of poverty statistics -- for 1998 -- is due to be released by the Census Bureau this coming Thursday. But the key won't be the official overall poverty rate, which will get the initial headlines and presumably will drop. More important is the underlying census data that will be released at the same time. Poverty nerds will promptly fiddle with this data and run it through their computers to see if it still seems to indicate a mysterious decline in reported income among the very poor -- roughly, single mothers below 75 percent of the poverty line. This decline first showed up in 1997, and leftish "advocacy" groups such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) and the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) have been blaming it on the 1996 welfare reform.

        Even if the statistical trend persists, it's not clear what it means -- there is no corresponding increase in actual, visible suffering; it could mean that single mothers are just getting more money under the table from their boyfriends, for example. (And even if the numbers do reflect an actual income decline, that might be the temporary price of shifting from a welfare culture to a working culture.) But if the trend persists, the left might get some traction in the press, which it didn't quite acheive when it publicized the 1997 numbers last month. (Memo to the CBPP: Be nicer to Robert Pear this time!). ... On the other hand, if the downward trend peters out, the left will basically be bereft of any significant statistic to use against welfare reform -- since the other numbers (labor force participation, the overall poverty rate, teen pregnancy, etc.) are quite positive. ...

        The initial race to crunch the numbers might take as little as 24 hours. . . . . My bet: the declining-income trend will continue, but we still won't know what it means.

        I Fill, You Fill, They All Filled, and There Were Still Five Minutes Left! Did you catch the little propaganda display WETA staged last Friday to smooth the entrance of Gwen Ifill as host of Washington Week in Review? Not much more than midway through the half-hour show, interim host Paul Duke showed a self-satisfied pseudo-documentary that touched all the wrinkly erogenous zones of the PBS audience -- the Nixon threat, the (justly) beloved Peter Lisagor -- and glossed almost completely over ex-host Ken Bode's long tenure, before introducing the "Ifill era." Then came the Maoist reeducation session, during which the panelists spontaneously sang Ifill's praises, except that they quickly ran out of things they weren't too embarrassed to say and (with what seemed like a full five minutes left in the program) the conversation degenerated into stock "people-who've-recognized-me-in-train-stations" reminiscences. ...

        Could WETA's producers have made it any more obvious that they're nervous and defensive about the possibility that the liberal geezers who watch the show might now tune out? (Read the transcript for yourself here.) Ifill deserves better than these heavyhanded amateurs. ...

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Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.

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posted 08.03.99