Debunker Debunked

by Kevin D. Williamson

Via Mother Jones, “Ten Poverty Myths, Busted,” with Erika Eichelberger setting a remarkably low standard for a so-called debunking. Her list, my comments in italics:

1. Single moms are the problem. Only 9 percent of low-income, urban moms have been single throughout their child’s first five years. Thirty-five percent were married to, or in a relationship with, the child’s father for that entire time. The opposite of “single” here is not “married” — that would be too easy! — but “in a relationship of some kind with the child’s father,” and, if you think about it, the great majority of women are going to be in some sort of relationship with the child’s father, hence the pregnancy. The variable here is not whether you’re dating the child’s father, but whether you are married to him. If you are going to “debunk” the sentence “Single moms are the problem,” noting that about a third of single mothers managed to sustain largely non-marital (check the numbers!) relationships with the father for five years doesn’t get it done. The Census data confirm that the vast majority of single mothers were never married: the divorced, separated, and widowed account for about 12 percent of all single mothers. The poverty rate of single-mother households is five times the poverty rate of married-couple households. About half the children in single-mother households live in poverty. By any measure, single mothers are an enormous problem when it comes to poverty.

2. Absent dads are the problem. Sixty percent of low-income dads see at least one of their children daily. Another 16 percent see their children weekly. See single moms, above. And 60 percent of low-income dads see “at least one of their children daily”? Again, pretty low bar. The data suggest that absentee dads, being the counterpart of single mothers, are a significant problem.

3. Black dads are the problem. Among men who don’t live with their children, black fathers are more likely than white or Hispanic dads to have a daily presence in their kids’ lives. The CDC confirms it: Black absentee fathers are marginally less absentee than white and Hispanic ones. But there are a lot more of them, proportionally: Black fathers are more than twice as likely as white fathers to live outside of their children’s household. Again, the relevant figure is obscured: Married fathers and fathers simply resident in the household are ten times more likely to have a daily meal with their children, three times more likely to bathe or dress them, six times more likely to read to them, etc. But marriage matters here, too: Married fathers read to their children twice as much as cohabiting fathers.

4. Poor people are lazy. In 2004, there was at least one adult with a job in 60 percent of families on food stamps that had both kids and a nondisabled, working-age adult. Awfully specific metric. And a lot of those jobs were short-term and part-time. Poor people may not be lazy, but they do not work: There is an average of 0.42 full-time earners per household in the bottom 20 percent  income group, and nearly 70 percent of the people in those households are not employed.

5. If you’re not officially poor, you’re doing okay. The federal poverty line for a family of two parents and two children in 2012 was $23,283. Basic needs cost at least twice that in 615 of America’s cities and regions. Who the hell believes that life is “okay” hovering just above the poverty line, or indeed within sight of it? It’s not Pakistan, but it’s not okay. And those high-cost-of-living cities and regions that are hard on the working poor — those wouldn’t happen to be liberal and Democrat-dominated, would they?What lessons might Erika Eichelberger derive from that quandary? My guess: none.

6. Go to college, get out of poverty. In 2012, about 1.1 million people who made less than $25,000 a year, worked full time, and were heads of household had a bachelor’s degree. Those five years that two-thirds of single mothers don’t spend in relationships with their children’s fathers? Don’t use them to get women’s-studies degrees. In any case, 1.1 million is not a very big number, constituting fewer than 1 percent of U.S. households. 

7. We’re winning the war on poverty. The number of households with children living on less than $2 a day per person has grown 160 percent since 1996, to 1.65 million families in 2011. Who thinks we’re winning the war on poverty? If you’re going to “bust” that myth, I’d like to know who believes it. Not these guys. Not me. One of the main criticisms of the so-called War on Poverty is that we’ve spent tons of money — literal tons if you put it in hundred-dollar bills and stacked it on pallets –without much to show for it other than generous retirement plans for the feckless welfare administrators who subscribe to Mother Jones.

8. The days of old ladies eating cat food are over. The share of elderly single women living in extreme poverty jumped 31 percent from 2011 to 2012. Hey, I know a guy who had a plan to improve the retirement system and reduce that sort of thing. I don’t recall Mother Jones coming out in support.

9. The homeless are drunk street people. One in 45 kids in the United States experiences homelessness each year. In New York City alone, 22,000 children are homeless. There are not 22,000 children sleeping on the streets of New York City, which includes in its homeless-children stats kids staying with relatives, in shelters, or in temporary arrangements. But there is something wrong with New York State: 26 percent of all the homeless children in the United States come from New York. But as this magazine has been arguing for years, the problem with the homeless isn’t that they’re over-fond of drink but that they’re mentally ill. You know who sleeps on the street? Drunk street people, addicted street people, street people with serious mental problems, etc.

10. Handouts are bankrupting us. In 2012, total welfare funding was 0.47 percent of the federal budget. Spending on handouts is small—if you only count the small stuff, in this case TANF and AFDC. But handouts under a half a percent? SNAP alone accounted for nearly 3 percent of federal spending in 2013. “Welfare” broadly defined accounts for about 11 percent of federal outlays, while the big three entitlements — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — make up the majority of all federal spending, with defense coming in at just 19 cents on the dollar. 

All in all, pretty sloppy stuff. I’d be embarrassed to have published it.