Definitions, Data, and Poverty

‘Infographics’ seem to be the hot thing lately and they really, really bother me. I am usually fine with funny ones, but too often they portray a warped view of the world which is designed for the advancement of an agenda. I may even agree with that agenda, but whenever I see summations with percentages and shocking titles, my skeptical senses tingle.

My example is not quite an ‘infographic’, but the problems are the same: where do the numbers come from and do they mean what they appear to mean? Campaigns rely on the fact that people, in general, are cognitive misers. We generally will not go out of their way to analyze information, especially if it speaks to our world view.

Today a friend posted this on Facebook with the comment that we should be able to trust the data because the source is UNICEF. As usual, the headline itself is grossly misleading, but this is not apparent unless you click through it. I did and found myself on another non-UNICEF page which included more details and a link to the UNICEF press release.

First, let me make the point that the accuracy of data are not usually the biggest problem. Yes, people make up stuff and that stuff gets quoted, etc., but you don’t need to make up numbers to mislead people. How the data are manipulated and framed are the more common problems with these kinds of reports. Looking at the report that my friend posted, although data may be accurate, the frame is questionable and should be insulting to someone who is actually living in poverty. It is not, in my opinion, a measure of the proportion of children “living in poverty”.

I was prepared to take on the information in the press release, but when I read it I discovered that there was a layer of ‘warping’ between UNICEF and the other reports. The release describes a combination of two measures of ‘poverty’. Of course, one needs to download and at least skim the full report to get the big picture, and who is going to do that? Well, I will, of course, but first let me address the report that was posted to my friend’s page.

Image provided in the UNICEF press kit for their "Report Card" on poverty.

This report cherry-picked one of the measures – the one they could most easily use to twist into an image of the U.S. as not-so-child-friendly.

I take issue with such manipulation. Science is too easily abused for the purposes of selling something, even with good intentions. Although evoking sympathy may prompt people to act, it also warps our views of reality. If we cannot view information objectively, we cannot make the best decisions about how to use the resources at our disposal to meet our goals. In the end, everyone loses.

The definition of ‘poverty’ used in this situation is “living in a household in which disposable income, when adjusted for family size and composition, is less than 50% of the national median income”. In other words, they took the income for each householdĀ in the country, subtracted an estimate of the cost of basic expenses and adjusted it for family size/structure to determine ‘disposable income’ (more on that later), divided all of the households in half according to the resulting value, then counted the children in each group. They did this for each country separately. Then they ranked the countries accordingly.

There was no standard for ‘poverty’ applied to all countries, so the comparison is severely limited in terms of what it can tell us. The UNICEF report notes a number of justifications for their choices, mostly related the problems associated with alternative measures. I agree with many of their notes about other measures, but that does not solve the problems associated with this measure. In addition, their methodology for determining disposable income and adjusting for family size and structure was very questionable and involved a complicated formula that I will not even attempt to explain.

They found that, in the U.S.A., just over 23% of the children live in households in the bottom half. Frankly, I was surprised by this number. I thought that it would be much higher. It means that more than 3 out of 4 children live in households with an above-average amount of disposable income!

The comparison states that there are 34 other countries in which the proportion of children in the top half of the country’s households in terms of disposable income is higher than the proportion in the U.S.

Poverty, in this analysis, does not mean what the dictionary or Wikipedia say it means (“…an economic condition of lacking both money and basic necessities needed to successfully live, such as food, water, education, healthcare, and shelter.”), yet people will still think of it as such.

This is poor perspective.

The report provided justifications for the 50% threshold, however, I cannot help but be reminded of how often someone is shocked when they hear a report that 50% of people are below average in some desirable measure. It seems to me that no matter how much is done to improve the lives of those children, we will always have a ‘bottom half’. This is one of the problems with framing things in relative terms.

Of course we want all children to prosper, but just as we want everyone to have an above-average IQ, we cannot achieve such a thing when we define our goals in relative terms. The only way to increase the number of children in the upper half of that distribution is to increase the number of adults in the lower half. That’s tough when you consider that adults need to care for children, so nobody who cares for children can be in the lower half, either.

Perhaps that bottom half should be made up entirely of childless, middle-aged people? Or the elderly?

As the press release noted, the UNICEF includes two measures of ‘poverty’. The other measure defined poverty in a standardized manner which was more consistent with the traditional definition. They listed 14 items which were considered essential and considered a child to be “living in poverty” if they lacked two or more of those items. However, this analysis was limited to European countries. So, there is nothing in the report that tells us the proportion of children in the U.S. who are living in poverty as it is traditionally defined. Nothing.

Furthermore, the original post and the one it linked to suggest that we don’t take care of our children. Programs like National School Lunch Program (established in 1946), Head Start, and even basic public assistance are designed to provide those basic necessities, yet receiving them does not affect whether they are considered “living in poverty” by the UNICEF definition, which considers reported income.

Whether or not you believe those programs are sufficient is not something I am even qualified to argue about and not the point. I think that efforts to promote social programs, something which requires some political maneuvering and framing, have redefined what “poverty” means. That may have helped sell those programs, but in the long run we need to readjust in order to see things the way they are. My point is that losing perspective is never a good thing. In the end, we need to see reality if we are to determine how best to distribute resources and services to achieve goals like reducing economic disparity.

When we talk about poverty, I would like to see a more nuanced approach. For example, the most common measure of need used by public schools is whether a child qualifies for the National School Lunch program. Children who are homeless are lumped in with kids whose parents may struggle to make ends meet, but have enough to eat, clothing, shoes, a roof over their heads, and even cell phones. I do not mean to minimize the problems of people who are barely scraping by, but when their problems are not distinguishable from those who are literally going without essentials, that is shameful.

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