Tuesday, September 06, 2005

He's At It Again!

Nicholas Kristof, fresh from making bogus comparisons with Cuba's infant mortality rates (the falsity of his comparison is demonstrated here), has written another column, with similarly bogus comparisons with infant mortality rates in China and India.

He writes:

If it's shameful that we have bloated corpses on New Orleans streets, it's even more disgraceful that the infant mortality rate in America's capital is twice as high as in China's capital. That's right - the number of babies who died before their first birthdays amounted to 11.5 per thousand live births in 2002 in Washington, compared with 4.6 in Beijing.

Indeed, according to the United Nations Development Program, an African-American baby in Washington has less chance of surviving its first year than a baby born in urban parts of the state of Kerala in India.

The national infant mortality rate has risen under Mr. Bush for the first time since 1958. The U.S. ranks 43rd in the world in infant mortality, according to the C.I.A.'s World Factbook; if we could reach the level of Singapore, ranked No. 1, we would save 18,900 children's lives each year.

Now, the first point to remember is that in the US hospitals treat as live births and try to save premature babies that would not even be registered as born alive in virtually any other country, or in America itself even a decade ago. This produces a good deal of the appearance of "high infant mortality rate." What's the rest? Why do Beijing and Singapore have such strikingly low birth rates? Well if you have a culture and government committed to eugenics and a liquidation of the handicapped, then babies with "problems" are also not going to be treated as live births, but disposed of as miscarriages (that is, if they survive the amniocentesis-abortion gauntlet in the first place). I mean, does Nicholas Kristof really not know that the a premature baby born with birth defects in China has essentially no chance of being treated as a live birth?

And then he goes on to poverty.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported a few days ago that the poverty rate rose again last year, with 1.1 million more Americans living in poverty in 2004 than a year earlier. After declining sharply under Bill Clinton, the number of poor people has now risen 17 percent under Mr. Bush.

. . .

Japan has tried hard to stitch all Japanese together into the nation's social fabric. In contrast, the U.S. - particularly under the Bush administration - has systematically cut people out of the social fabric by redistributing wealth from the most vulnerable Americans to the most affluent.

It's not just that funds may have gone to Iraq rather than to the levees in New Orleans; it's also that money went to tax cuts for the wealthiest rather than vaccinations for children.

Mr. Kristof is inexcusably ignorant or flatly dishonest. There is no other way to read this other than as saying, 1) "President Bush's tax cuts are responsible for a decrease in child immunizations" and 2) "President Bush's tax cuts are responsible for a rise in the poverty rate."

About the first claim, here are the most recent facts:

Record levels of American children are receiving recommended vaccinations against dangerous diseases . . .

An estimated 81 percent of children aged 19 to 35 months received the full series of immunizations last year, according to the 2004 National Immunization Survey, released Tuesday to kick off August as National Immunization Awareness Month.

"For the first time, we have broken the 80 percent coverage barrier for the full immunization series at 2 years of age," Dr. Steve Cochi, acting director of the National Immunization Program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a news conference. "This is five years ahead of the Healthy People 2010 schedule." In 2003, 79.4 percent of children were fully immunized.

There were also sizable gains in the proportion of young children receiving the relatively new chickenpox and childhood pneumococcal vaccine. In 2004, 87.5 percent of children received the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine, compared with 84.8 percent in 2003. Coverage for three or more doses of pneumoccoccal conjugate vaccine rose to 73.2 percent from 68.1 percent for the same time period.

Moreover, if he knew anything poverty rates, he would know that, as reported in a helpful Washington Post article, they are calculated based on pre-tax income. Therefore, NOTHING President Bush did or did not do in regard to "TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH!" has any relevance to the poverty rate.

As the article states:

. . . household incomes may be understated because they do not include non-cash income like food stamps. The earned income tax credit was created during the Reagan administration specifically to raise the working poor out of poverty. But by government counting, the program has not lifted a single person above the poverty threshold, Michael said. Since poverty rates are based on pre-tax income, refunds like the earned income credit do not count.

Indeed as the article states, other factors may make the real poverty rate higher than the official one. But what all ways of counting share in common is that they try to measure poverty before government intervention to reduce poverty, whether through non-cash programs, or through tax rebates. Hence any rise or fall in government intervention to reduce poverty is, by definition, not responsible for changes in the "poverty rate." As economists know, poverty rates and incomes lag in the business cycle, not rising until the economy has been growing for several years in a row.

In fact, data here shows that the percentage of their income paid in federal taxes by the bottom 40% of Americans declined to its lowest level in a long time under the Bush administation, while data here shows that the percentage of federal revenues paid by those in the bottom 40% percentile likewise decreased due to the Bush tax cuts.

Statistics are a great gift. All the greater is the responsibility when people misuse them.

UPDATE: Nicholas Eberstadt today (Sept. 9) in his op-ed column "Broken Yardstick" presents a strong case against believing anything about the official "poverty rates" in America. Since NYTimes registration is required and this is very much worth knowing, I'm going to risk the wrath of the paper's lawyers and excerpt large chunks of it.

. . . many news editors, like policymakers in Washington, know the dirty little secret about the poverty rate: it just isn't any good. Truth be told, the official poverty rate not only fails to calculate trends in impoverishment with any precision, it even gets the direction wrong.

. . .

In 1972-73, for example, just 42 percent of the bottom fifth of American households owned a car; in 2003, almost three-quarters of "poverty households" had one. By 2001, only 6 percent of "poverty households" lived in "crowded" homes (more than one person per room) - down from 26 percent in 1970. By 2003, the fraction of poverty households with central air-conditioning (45 percent) was much higher than the 1980 level for the non-poor (29 percent).
Besides these living trends, there are what we might call the "dying trends": that is to say, America's health and mortality patterns. All strata of America - including the disadvantaged - are markedly healthier today than three decades ago. Though the officially calculated poverty rate for children was higher in 2004 than 1974 (17.8 percent versus 15.4 percent), the infant mortality rate - that most telling measure of wellbeing - fell by almost three-fifths over those same years, to 6.7 per 1,000 births from 16.7 per 1,000.

The poverty rate is out of step with all these other readings about deprivation in modern America because it was designed to measure the wrong thing. The poverty rate has always been derived from reported household income. . . . But a better gauge of a household's material deprivation is not what it earns, but what it spends.

. . .

In the Labor Department's latest Consumer Expenditure Survey (2003), the average reported income for the bottom fifth of households was $8,201, while reported outlays came to $18,492 - well over twice that amount. Over the past generation, that discrepancy widened significantly: back in the early 1970's, the poorest fifth's reported spending exceeded income by 40 percent.

Unfortunately, economists and statisticians have yet to come up with a clear explanation for this gap (which is not explained by in-kind payments like food stamps or other assistance).

. . .

But whatever its cause, it does drive home the unreliability of using reported household income as a benchmark for poverty.

For now, however, we should recognize that America has already achieved far more success in the war against want than our sorry poverty rate can admit - and that we need much better guidance systems for the anti-poverty battles still ahead than this one, arguably the single worst measure in our government's statistical arsenal.

It ain't what you don't know that hurts you, it's what you know that just ain't so.