Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers 

By Patrick F. Cannon

I heard a radio report recently that claimed that 40 million children go to bed hungry every night in the United States. I’m not sure where they got this number. An admittedly quick check found another source that said that one million was the correct figure. But then I found another source that took a somewhat different approach: it said that 50 million people of all ages went to bed hungry and woke up hungry.

I’m not sure where the larger figures come from either, but I suspect it has some relationship to the number of people living below the poverty line. The latest statistics I could find put that number at 13.5 percent of the population in 2015, or roughly 42 million, down a full percentage point for the year. The percentage has fluctuated over the years, but the current rate is below the average since 1960. But like all the numbers I have quoted, it’s misleading.

In 1960, for example, the rate was nearly 20 percent in a period before President Johnson’s famous “War on Poverty” began to take effect. Now, even though the resulting programs are now quite extensive and have expanded regularly in both Republican and Democratic administrations, most are ignored when the government computes the poverty line.

According to Harvard University sociologist Christopher Jencks, who carefully studied this issue, the true poverty rate is 4.8 percent. Unlike the Federal government, he included the programs that were designed to raise low income families out of actual poverty. While it would take up too much space to list all of them, the more familiar include the Earned Income Tax Credit; housing subsidies; food assistance including food stamps and school meals; and Medicare and Medicaid and other healthcare assistance through the Affordable Care Act. When you add the numerous privately-funded programs, including food pantries, you can well believe the Kaiser Foundation’s study that concluded that parental neglect was the cause of most childhood hunger, not actual poverty.

As the national election nears, all of us need to be careful about taking on faith the numbers that the candidates throw at us. I have mentioned before in this space that Mr. Trump continues to try to convince the electorate that the country is gripped in a crime wave.  It’s not. Nor is free trade the calamity that Hillary Clinton and her union supporters claim. Although there are other factors, free trade agreements have been a key factor in reducing abject poverty in the world (defined by the World Bank as an income of $1.90 a day or less) from 44 percent in 1980 to a projected less than 10 percent at the end of 2015. Pandering politicians have also conveniently forgotten that protectionist policies in the 1930s only served to deepen and prolong the Great Depression.

Oh, and by the way, median household income increased 5.2 percent in 2015. The Democrats will take credit for this, just as the Republicans would if they held the White House. All of them conveniently forget the historic ebbs and flows of the business cycle. I try not to.


Copyright 2016, Patrick F. Cannon

7 thoughts on “Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

  1. Numb, number and numbest. Statistics never lie, only statisticians. People who put faith in numbers (God help them!) forget they are contrivances. Measure something in feet (what’s your shoe size?) and it comes out different in meters. Prices of commodities change daily. The algorithms that claim to predict my consumer preferences are usually wrong. People live under a cloud of dread because climate change (there’s a tautology for you) models predict the world’s fiery demise. Or will it be ice? The Fibonacci sequence is intriguing, if you happen to like looking at snail shells.

    Hunger in America? In Kolkata for sure. But in a land of abundance and obesity, it’s a hard sell. Caveat subfragator!


  2. Are there no prisons? No workhouses? Every man who goes about saying “Merry Christmas” should be buried with a stake of holly through his heart! Bah, humbug!


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