The Times has played fast and loose

Bruce Bartlett
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Posted: Aug 31, 2004 12:00 AM

I know many New York Times reporters and have always found them to be very good at their jobs, interested only in getting the story and getting it right. One that I don't know is Timothy Egan, who confirms most conservatives' perception of the Times as little more than a conduit for Democratic Party press releases.

 On Aug. 28, Egan published an article in the Times titled, "Economic Squeeze Plaguing Middle-Class Families." I know that reporters don't write the headlines, but in this case it accurately describes the content of the article. Unfortunately, the content is deeply flawed. Indeed, it is doubtful that John Kerry's campaign staff would have written it much differently if it had been handed the assignment.

 The central point of the article is that recently released Census Bureau data show the middle class is disappearing. The key data are presented in a chart accompanying the article, titled, "A Shrinking Middle Class." This chart shows that the percentage of those households with incomes between $25,000 and $75,000 have fallen from 51.9 percent in 1980 to 44.9 percent in 2003.

 The clear implication is that the middle class has suffered under Republican policies -- why else start in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected? If the chart had started in 1992, the year Bill Clinton was elected, it would have shown the exact same trend. In 1992, those earning between $25,000 and $75,000 constituted 47.9 percent of all households. By 2000, this fell to 46.1 percent. I don't remember the Times calling attention to this fact.

 The reason is quite simple: This is actually good news, not bad news, as the Times report strongly implies.

 First, it is important to know that the data in the Times story are adjusted for inflation. This is mentioned in a footnote to the chart, but nowhere else in the article. It might be useful to know that those with an income of $11,825 in 1980 now make $25,000, or that an income of $75,000 last year is the same as an income of $35,475 in 1980.

 In other words, the data take account of increased prices on everything from gasoline to college tuition. Yet the article implies that increased costs for these things has taken place without a concomitant increase in household income. The effect is to make middle class families appear worse off, when in fact most are far better off than they were in 1980.

The most egregious error in the article is the clear implication that the percentage of those defined as the "middle class" has fallen because many of those who used to be considered middle class have become poor. This is totally untrue. In fact, the ranks of the poor have fallen along with those of the middle class.

 Using the Times' characterization of any household with an income below $25,000 in 2003 as being poor, what do the data show? We see that this group fell from 33.1 percent of the population in 1980 to 29 percent in 2002. Looking at the data from the other end, we see that the percentage of those making more than $75,000 has risen from 14.9 percent of the population in 1980 to 26.1 percent in 2003.

 In other words, the ranks of the poor and middle class have shrunk for one reason only -- more of them are rich! How can it not be a good thing for society that fewer people are now making low incomes and more are making high incomes?

 Just to show that the income gains have not been confined to those who were relatively well-to-do to begin with, there has also been an impressive increase in the percentage of black families with middle- and upper-class incomes.

 In 1980, 53.8 percent of black households made less that $25,000 (in 2003 dollars), which fell to 43.4 percent in 2003. The ranks of the black middle class ($25,000 to $75,000) increased from 40.5 percent to 42.9 percent. And the percentage of black families falling into the Times' definition of rich (over $75,000) rose from 5.8 percent to 13.7 percent.

 The Times cites Factcheck.org, a website sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, for its analysis. But I could find nothing on this site with the same figures. The closest thing I could find is an Aug. 3 report that actually disputes Kerry's claim that the middle class is withering away under Republican rule.

 In short, the Times has played fast and loose with the numbers in order to turn good news into bad news. The fact that the article also repeatedly uses the term middle class "squeeze," which the Kerry campaign frequently hypes, is further evidence that the report is seriously biased.