Sunday, July 28, 2013

Facebook politics: 80% of us are poor oh no!

I use the term "Facebook politics" to describe news articles or image macros that are unfair, devoid of substance, or upon deeper inspection actually a blow to the side of the people spreading the story.

Today's article falls into all three categories: 80% of US Adults Face Near-Poverty, Unemployment. It's going around on Facebook, along with cries about how horrible capitalism is.

Let's take a closer look.
The gauge defines "economic insecurity" as experiencing unemployment at some point in their working lives, or a year or more of reliance on government aid such as food stamps or income below 150 percent of the poverty line. Measured across all races, the risk of economic insecurity rises to 79 percent.
I tried hard to find a cutoff age date but couldn't. I assume the study used 18 as a starting date and 60 as an end; if they didn't limit the cutoff age at 60 the problems with the statistic would be even worse.
We have three measures: 1) If ever, for even a single day, across 42 (or maybe more) years, the person has been unemployed, they* count as economically unstable.

2) If, at any point of their adult life, they have relied on government aid for a year or more, including some forms of aid that are not means-tested, they acount as economically unstable.

3) If, at any point in their adult life, they have had an income below 150 percent of the poverty line, they are economically unstable.

I am kinda shocked they didn't find 100% of the population falls into one of these three categories. The yearly layoff rate in the private sector is about 10%, so many people will be unemployed at some point in their lives. Likewise if you didn't have a job the day you turned 18 (or whatever their starting age), even if you got one the next day and haven't been unemployed since, the study counts you as unstable. If you become so fabulously wealthy that you can retire very early, your income is 0--well below 150% of the poverty line, but it seems this survey would count such people as unstable. Likewise college kids working part-time jobs to build up work experience while living at home with wealthy parents are considered impoverished, even if their parents are paying for college, food, entertainment, etc. I sure hope the survey used the standard definition of unemployment (having applied for at least one job in the past 3 months), or else we're counting lots of working housewives and househusbands with wealthy spouses as economically unstable. In short, as a methodology for determining people's risk of actually suffering because of income troubles, this is lousy. It's so lousy that it can only have been patently designed as such to generate a scary headline.

And that's exactly the point of Facebook politics: it is about posting shocking headlines without any thought as to the actual content of the article, because when you don't have to do any research it's much easier to bash your political opponents.

But if you still somehow think this is bad news for capitalism, I hope you don't think European social democracies would do much better. France and Germany, for example, both have persistently higher unemployment rates than does the United States, increasing the proportion of the population that falls into category (1). And their government aid programs are, on average, more generous than those in the United States, increasing the proportion of people that would fall into category (2). I'd be happy to bet that a repeat of this study in France would find an even greater percentage of the population is economically unstable. If the scary headline has anything to say about capitalism compared to socialism, it's that capitalism is awesome for poor people relative to more socialistic systems.

*"Singular they": God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

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