Politics & Policy

Middle-Class Hooey

The Washington Post runs a front-page ad for Kerry.

A newspaper’s prime real estate is the space on page one, above the fold. This is where it highlights the most important stories of the day. Usually, the news itself dictates what will occupy a paper’s most important space. So when a paper turns this territory over to a politically charged story that is not time-sensitive, it is sending an important message to its readers about what it wants them to know.

Consequently, it is revealing that the Washington Post devoted half the space on its Sept. 20 page one above the fold to an advertisement for John Kerry. It wasn’t technically an advertisement, of course, but it might as well have been. The whole thrust of the article was to support Kerry’s charge that Republican policies are impoverishing the middle class.

If the facts supported the Post analysis, this would be an interesting story, although I don’t see how it could ever conceivably justify page-one status. It isn’t as though we haven’t heard this many, many times before. In 1984, 1988, and 1992, the Post ran innumerable reports about the imminent disappearance of the middle class. Oddly, I don’t recall any articles of this type in 1996, when Bill Clinton was running for reelection, even though the data would have supported the same analysis.

The reason for is that the media have a template: Republicans are for the rich, Democrats represent the middle class. Any data that confirms this template is reported — often on page one — while any data contradicting it is ignored or buried on the back pages.

It is exactly this sort of thing that recently got CBS in trouble over forged documents. All of the elite media tend to accept uncritically any information supporting a liberal worldview. Anything going in the opposite direction is subjected to strict scrutiny. Also, stories with a liberal worldview are allowed to appear without a contrary perspective, whereas those supporting a conservative point of view must always be “balanced” with lots of quotes from the other side.

Looking at the Post story, you can see many ways in which the data have been manipulated to give it a liberal spin. For example, on page one there is a graph showing that the percentage of households earning between $35,000 and $49,999 (in 2003 dollars) has fallen sharply from 22.3 percent in 1967 to just 15 percent in 2003. At first glance, this would seem to be powerful evidence for the Post/Kerry thesis that the middle class is disappearing. In the pre-Internet age, people might have bought this argument, since they lacked any way of checking it. But today, anyone with an Internet connection can log on to this address and find the facts for themselves.

Anyone who does so will discover that the Post data are accurate, but leave out what is really important: Over this same period, 1967 to 2003, the percentage of families making less than $35,000 (in 2003 dollars) also fell from 52.8 percent of households to just 40.9 percent. In short, the ranks of the middle class could not have fallen because they became poor, as the Post implies, because the ranks of the poor also fell.

The truth is that poor and middle-class households alike became better off, which increased the ranks of the “rich” (those making over $49,999 in 2003 dollars in the Post’s view) as a share of the population. In 1967, those with such an income constituted 24.9 percent of households. By 2003 this had increased to 44.1 percent. The inescapable conclusion is that the declining ranks of the middle class result from one thing only — more of them are now “rich.”

In fairness, the Post presents a graph making this point, although there is nothing in the text of the article. The entire piece is constructed so as to make it appear that the rich have gained at the expense of the middle class, instead of explaining that many in the middle class are now rich by the Post’s definition.

The Post story plays fast and loose with the data in other ways as well. For example, it notes that the top 20 percent of households claimed more than half of all income in 2001, as if this is the most recent data. In fact, there is data from the Census Bureau for 2002 and 2003, which show that the top quintile’s share of income has fallen to under 50 percent in both years. It’s a trivial point, but it shows the extent to which the Post is trying hard to make things look worse than they really are.

Unfortunately, the Post has promised more articles on this same subject — this was just the first in a series. One can only hope they get better, but I doubt it.

– Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis. Write to him here.

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