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Homeless in hot tubs; want to wipe out poverty? Give a conservative a calculator.

Kitty Kelley needn't fear the competition, a little-known paperback has just hit the Washington market with a dramatic real-life story. The 1991 Green Book* is a 1,641-page compendium of social welfare statistics put together by staff members of the House Ways and Means Committee-the 11th annual volume, and the largest to date. In the past, the book was of interest mainly to a select group of squinchy-eyed policy analysts who combed its bar charts and shrunken type looking for revelations. What's interesting about this year's volume is that it has drawn a counterattack from several conservatives in Congress, who first tried to stop the book's publication and then sent out mock warning labels calling the book "hazardous to economic health."

Led by Rep. Richard Anney, a Texas Republican with a doctorate in economics, they argue that it's a cooked book-a collection of phony statistics ginned up by Democratic staff members to paint a misleading portrait of inequality in America and justify the twin goals of Big government and High Taxes. With as many charts and graphs as the Green Book contains, it's not hard to find a statistical nit to pick. But what's finally striking about the volume is how solid a case it makes for the old liberal concerns about equality and opportunity. Leave aside for a moment the question of liberal solutions-what the book does is show that the nation has a lot of work left to do to make the words "and justice for all" anything more than a vacant slogan. Read the Green Book as a novel and you have Les Miserables a story of the rich growing richer and the poor succumbing to all manner of woes.

While the Green Book covers an endless number of topics-from food stamps to homelessness, Medicare to child care-what angers its critics are the tables that show increasing inequality in the distribution of American income. This is no accident. Democrats played the "fairness issue" with great success during last fall's budget debates, scuttling Republican proposals by portraying them as sop-the-poor measures. And the Ways and Means aide who churned out those analyses during the budget debate, Wendell Primus, happens to be the Green Book's primary author. Calling the book a "database for demagogues," Rep. Armey says that it is the foundation "for the whole fairness debate that the left wing of American politics tries to use." What's more, as university professors increasingly consult it as a reference, he says, its "Marxist, class-conflict" perspective will filter down to American youth and build "a lot of misinformation into our young people's understanding of their own nation."

Along with Republican Senators William Roth and Connie Mack, Armey has sent out a "Green Book Correction Quiz," designed to show the flaws in the Democratic stats. Four of the six items he cites are merely typos, hardly surprising in a volume this large. And even though Armey argues that all the seemingly innocent mistakes "shoot to the Left," two of the four don't exaggerate inequality, they understate it.

His more substantive argument is that, relying on data from the Congressional Budget Office, the Green Book exaggerates inequality by failing to account for inflation when figuring capital gains. That is, if George Herbert Walker Bush bought $1,000 worth of stock in 1977 and sold it for $1,500 in 1990, the budget office, using IRS data, would count that as a gain of $500 when in fact it's really a $657 loss. Fair enough-when the table shows that the top I percent of American families more than doubled their real incomes between 1977 and 1988, it overestimates how much they really gained on some of those stock transactions. (The poorest fifth of American families lost 13 percent, the book says.)

But then again, the table counts only the stocks that got cashed in. If data existed to measure the increased value of "unrealized capital gains"-the stocks, cars, vacation homes, artworks, and jewels that are still in portfolios-the rich would look even richer. Even more to the point, the incomes of the richest I percent more than doubled even when capital gains are left out altogether. Their wages and salaries rose by 120 percent from 1977 to 1988, while those of the other nine-tenths of American society actually fell by 3.5 percent. And those are just the figures on income. Studies of the concentration of all accumulated wealth show much greater disparities, with the top I percent of the population owning between 20 and 30 percent of the nation's net assets.

Armey has a point when he argues that the data on inequality can be easily jiggered for partisan reasons. Depending on the years chosen, the growth in inequality can look smaller or larger. In some periods, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. In others, the rich got richer and the poor also got richer-though much more slowly. But what really isn't in dispute is that the gap between the rich and poor has grown. "I think most analysts would agree that there's an increase in inequality," said Marvin Kosters, the head of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank with little interest in fomenting class conflict. Green achers

Now, as always, there is a debate about who bears the blame for poverty-the poor or the rest of us. The answer, of course, is often both, and in social policy circles there's been much recent talk about a new consensus of mutual obligation: that the poor deserve more help and that society has a right to set certain standards of effort. Ironically, although it's being tagged as a liberal tool, the Green Book offers plenty of information that suggests conservatives have been right to worry about the behavioral components of poverty. Worried about family disintegration? The Green Book shows that a full quarter of white children-and a stunning 64 percent of black children-are being born to single mothers. (And half of the nation's female-headed families live in poverty.) concerned that welfare is a trap? The book suggests that you ought to be, since 65 percent of those on welfare at any time will stay there for at least eight years.

But what may be more disturbing is the story the book tells about average Americans who are doing the right things, like working and staying in school, and slipping nonetheless. It's not just the bottom fifth of American society that lost ground from 1977 to 1988. Real after-tax income for the middle fifth dropped 7 percent. And in the past 10 years the number of families with someone working three-quarters time or more, but still remaining in poverty, grew 46 percent.

Here's a surprising figure: While the percentage of whites and hispanics who neither finish high school nor pass an equivalency exam has stayed stagnant for die past 20 years, the percentage of blacks without a high school education has dropped by half. In 1970, 28 percent of blacks between the ages of 16 and 24 failed to get degrees; by 1989, the figure had fallen to 14 percent.

But what do those students who've stuck it out and stayed in school have to show for it? Increasingly little-less, in many instances, than the dropouts who preceded them a generation ago but who had steel mills and assembly lines to fall back on. In 1973, 16 percent of those blacks who finished high school had earnings defined as low (less than $12,000 in 1987 figures). By 1987, 37 percent of black high school graduates were earning that little.

Put aside for a moment the cacophonous questions of blame-who's doing his part and who isn't-and listen to what we know about the kinds of lives that American children are inheriting. After bottoming out in 1969, child poverty rates have soared. A decade ago, the United States and Canada were vaguely comparable in this regard-10 percent of Canadian children were poor, while 15 percent of American children were. By the mid-eighties, Canada had cut its child poverty rate a notch, to 9 percent, while the American rate ballooned to more than 20 percent. The Green Book offers five wildly varying ways to count the number of homeless children in America. But who can read that chart and not worry that, by whichever number chosen, something in this country has gone awfully sour? Feint by numbers

Washington values cleverness more than wisdom. It now contains a subculture of clever policy analysts who excel at explaining away the plentiful evidence of meanness in American life. "There are those of us who think there ain't too much to do," was the way one domestic policy consultant to the White House explained it to me not long ago. Oddly enough, this brand of what problem?" politics is thriving alongside its exact opposite-Jack Kemp's version of bleeding-heart conservatism, which, whatever else may be said of it, cannot be accused of pretending poverty away.

One source of Washington's see-no-evil thinking is the Heritage Foundation, which despite making some serious contributions to Kemp's cause, both through ideas and personnel, also delights in studies meant to debunk such alleged liberal shibboleths as the shortage of low-income housing. ("Heritage Study Says Housing Shortage is Washington Fiction," the press release said.) When the Census Bureau reported last fall that 13 percent of the population, or 32 million Americans, fell below the poverty line, Heritage responded with a "backgrounder" scoffing at the figure and arguing that 22,000 of those so-called poor people actually owned heated swimming pools or jacuzzis-an assertion that Robert Rector, one of the paper's authors, then repeated on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal. The Heritage study ended by likening the Census Bureau's report to a Soviet-style disinformation campaign.

A skeptical researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank with liberal leanings, decided to investigate. The researcher, Ed Lazere, found that Heritage produced the 22,000 figure by taking an Energy Department survey that had found four such households in a survey of 1,000. Heritage then devised a formula for extrapolating for all poor families. Rector said he used a formula that can correct for the tiny sample size and argued there's a 98 percent probability that the 22,000 figure is correct. Wendel Thompson, the Energy Department official who managed the study, said this is statistical malpractice-"we don't think you can make any estimate at all from our survey." But go ahead and take the Heritage number at face value, and it still only amounts to 0.2 percent of the poverty population. Some people might think that leaves the glass 99.8 percent empty; Heritage prefers to argue that it's 0.2 percent full.

Heritage does have a point if it wants to argue that any measure of poverty is subjective. Count as income the value of noncash benefits like subsidized housing, and the number of poor people falls; subtract the amount of taxes they pay, and the number rises. Indeed, the Census Bureau offers 27 experimental measures of poverty in addition to its official one, showing poverty rates as low as 7.6 percent or as high as 20.3 percent. Choose whatever measure you want and you'll come up with a different figure.

But you'll also come up with poverty-and no shortage of it. After some of these debunking studies, one begins to wonder what kind of world these analysts are living in. Do they really think that poverty in America is the creation of some sneaky liberal statistician? That the homeless people they step over on the way to work slink off at night to Montgomery County jacuzzis? What's next-a study showing how infant mortality reduces family food costs? This is the kind of government-by-phony-anecdote stuff that Ronald Reagan used to feed on, the social policy equivalent of the argument that smog comes from trees. Mississippi yearning

One thing that makes this game possible is that few Washington poverty experts spend any time with poor people, who are almost always more complicated and compelling than the theories about them. Currently, some Washington experts argue that America's infant mortality problem isn't really as bad as it seems because it's largely an "underclass problem"-one driven not by the lack of available care but by the behavior of mothers who drink, take drugs, or otherwise contribute to their own neglect. This, in fact, is often the case, though it will offer little solace to the infants or to the mothers.

Earlier this year, on a trip through the Mississippi Delta, I met a 34-year-old woman named Betty Briggs, whose fifth child, C. L., had just died of pneumonia at the age of six months-another tick on the infant mortality count. It is easy to summon from the chaos of Betty's life ample evidence for the behavioral theory of infant mortality. The baby may have died because he was born prematurely after Betty's father shot at her during an argument, causing her to flee and fall; because Betty chain-smoked hand-rolled King Albert cigarettes throughout her pregnancy; because she failed to keep him away from her own mother when she contracted pneumonia, exposing him to the contagion that killed him. Of course, it's possible, too, to set the drama of C. L.'s death on the larger stage of mean Mississippi history, since the inheritance of several centuries' unadorned subjugation played as large a role as the virus-the sharecropper life that sent Betty's mother moving from shack to shack; that pushed Betty from school after sixth grade; that killed 5 of her 12 siblings in their infancy.

Betty herself is a sweet and passive woman who was born with a crossed eye and has lost about half her teeth. She smiles at strangers but says little. It took two visits before she let on that she hides her only remembrances of C. L.-five dim Polaroids of his crib-sized casket-inside a hollowed-out compartment in a stereo receiver, beneath a potted plant, so that she won't be tempted to look at them. When she gets up at night to use the bathroom, she is more maternal than awake, and she looks toward his room to see if he's all right. "I feel like dying myself," she says, staring at the floor. "It entered my mind that God might want to punish me for something I didn't do right. Every time I look at the pictures, I cry."

Washington needs conservative analysts to keep its liberal analysts honest, and vice versa. But the energy now being invested in explaining away the suffering of a nation of Americans like Betty Briggs would be better spent on finding ways to ease it. Jason DeParle is a reporter for The New York Times. *1991 Green Book: Background Material and Data on Programs Within the Jurisdiction of the Committee on Ways and Means. U. S. Government Printing Office, $34.
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Author:DeParle, Jason
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1991
Words:2489
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