NYT Finds New Victim Class: The "Near Poor"

May 8th, 2006 7:41 AM

The "Paper of Record" ran a piece today by Erik Eckholm which lays out the plight that the nation’s “near poor” face on a daily basis. According to “some experts” carefully selected for message compatibility, “vulnerability to poverty” is now the new “poverty.”

Its rather convenient for left-leaning media outlets, in a period of record economic expansion and robust growth (going on two straight years, with lower unemployment that in the 90’s), to find the “tens of millions” who may have financial troubles at some point. Don’t take my word for it – read the “expert” opinion:

"There's strong evidence that over the past five years, record numbers of lower-income Americans find themselves in a more precarious economic position than at any time in recent memory," said Mark R. Rank, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of "One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All."

Get out the violins. Upon reading this piece, you will be barraged with a torrent of unflattering statistics and tragic scenarios, with no balance or context even attempted. I don’t want to appear callous in pointing out a few facts about the parade of victims the NYT marches out for this piece, but something needs to be said for the other side of this class-envy "argument" the NYT is trying to formulate on its pages.

The opening passages describe a near-retirement couple named The Abbots, who have fallen on hard times economically. OK. Many Americans do at one time or another, and it has always been that way. So how are The Abbotts representative of the “new” class of “victims?”

The Abbotts date their tailspin to a collapse in demand for the aviation-related electronic parts that Stephen sold in better times, when he earned about $40,000 a year. He lost his job in late 2001, unemployment benefits ran out over the next year and he and his wife, Laurie, along with their teenage son, were evicted from their apartment. They spent a year in a borrowed motor home here in the working-class interior of Orange County, followed by eight months in a motel room with a kitchenette. During that time, Ms. Abbott, a diabetic who is now 51, lost all her teeth and could not afford to replace them.

That’s unfortunate, for sure. I surely empathize as a hardworking young person who hopes to be an entrepreneur one day. Mr. Abbott did find a sales job (as the article later reveals), but ran into health problems (not related to employment) and had to go on state disability. This story is surely not an unusual case for those who choose to go into entrepreneurship (every business owner accepts certain financial risks when endeavoring, and most small businesses fail), but apparently this is what constitutes news to the NYT.

The second story we get is more dubious and elicits (in my estimate) somewhat less sympathy. A motor home couple who were about to ‘move on up,’ only to have their American dream smashed by the evil dynamics of free-market capitalism:

Those suffering a nose-dive say the statistics do not begin to convey their fears and anguish.

Only a year ago, Machele Sauer thought she was entering the middle class. She and her husband, a licensed electrician, owned a large mobile home. He was starting his own business and Ms. Sauer, after bearing their fourth child, hoped to stop waitressing and be a stay-at-home mom.

"We were the ideal family, the envy of others," she said recently as she collected free food and diapers at the Hope Family Support Center, a small charity in Garden Grove, Calif., in Orange County. "And then, boom, everything flipped upside down."

Fair enough. That sounds unfortunate. The devil, however, is in the details:

Life fell apart last spring when her husband was arrested on theft charges, linked to a recent drug addiction she says she did not know about. Because of a prior record, he received a long prison sentence.

Well, now. That’s a little bit of a difference than “He lost his job in this precarious economy and had to find a lower paying-one.” The husband had a prior (pattern of criminal behavior), a drug addiction and is a thief. Forgive me, but the sympathy isn’t exactly pouring out here. In addition, the couple felt it necessary to bring four children into this situation. Four kids. In a mobile home. With a criminal father and a naive mother. The question for the NYT on this one goes thus - should society be blamed for this situation?

Here’s more:

At first she went on welfare, receiving $600 a month along with paid child care and counseling for herself and the children. As she resumed waitress work—four night shifts and two day shifts a week—she earned about $1,300 a month, which led her welfare payment to be cut to $300.

She receives $200 worth of food stamps that cover bills for just the first two weeks of each month, she said.

Here’s the 2004 poverty line for a family of four, according to the article:

About 37 million Americans lived below the federal poverty line in 2004, set at $19,157 a year for a family of four. But far more people, another 54 million, were in households earning between the poverty line and double the poverty line.

Let’s do some math here. $1,300 a month from work + $300 per month from welfare + $200 food stamps + free child care and “counseling” on the taxpayers. That works out to be about $1,800 per month in combined income and government subsidies (not including the cost of the healthcare and “counseling”). Multiply this by 12, and we have a total annual income of about $21, 600. That’s above the poverty line for a family of four in 2004. Despite having a family of five, the Sauer’s income also doesn’t include healthcare or child care costs (and reduced food costs), since they are picked up by the taxpayers.

The bottom line for the unfortunate Ms. Sauer is that things may be tight for a while, so suck it up. Four kids is a big litter for any income, and society isn’t responsible for your decision to have them. The kids aren’t starving or dying from lack of care or from strange diseases, and the mother is employed. She intends to go into nursing, which is a well-paying field. Maybe remarriage is an option. That’s a pretty good response to the upheaval in her life. Maybe the NYT could replace Maureen Dowd by giving Ms. Sauer a job writing columns about whom not to marry. The sky is the limit.

Quite suddenly, we have a new "crisis” on our hands – tens of millions are living “within double of the poverty line.” Why not just raise the federal poverty line to $38, 314 then? According to the NYT (who presumably thinks that this piece constitutes news), there are far too many people making less than $40,000 per year, and this is simply an injustice whose cruelty cannot be measured. Remember the trust of the article – the risk of being in poverty is greater than ever. Actual poverty in real life? The NYT doesn’t say:

In a rare study of vulnerability to poverty, Mr. Rank and his colleagues found that the risk of a plummet of at least a year below the official poverty line rose sharply in the 1990's, compared with the two previous decades. By all signs, he said, such insecurity has continued to worsen.

Heaven help us all – we’re doomed. In other news, the risk of getting into a car accident has remained higher than that of flying in an aircraft. An initiative to convert all cars into flying machines is under consideration.

Apart from the two less-than-unprecedented tearjerker scenarios presented in the piece, there appears to be little else of substance in the article save a gaggle of dire predictions from “poverty experts.” The article focuses on two families in Anaheim, CA and bases many of its assertions and statistical “evidence” on Orange County. Let’s do some quick stat, and then wrap this all up:

In Orange County, about 220,000 people received food from 400 local charities last year, according to the Second Harvest Food Bank, which distributes donations. Recipients include many families, often Hispanic, with several children and both parents working minimum-wage jobs. Over all, half the families seeking food had at least one working adult, according to a recent study by the food bank.

So what? There are over 3 million residents of Orange County (page 1). The census estimates indicate (page 3) that per capita income in OC has grown by almost $17,000 since 2000, and that median family income rose from $64,611 in 2000 to $78, 606 in 2005. These are estimates, but there is surely a trend here – why the NYT fails to mention any of this relevant contextual information is a mystery. The vast majority of OC residents (regardless of "class") seem to know how to avoid the food bank. No sale here.

Also, given recent events in California and across the nation, how many of these “Hispanic families” may or may not be here legally? Why do most of them have “several children” when they clearly can not afford to support them? When does this abdication of individual responsibility end?

In conclusion, this article seems to do little more than fuel class envy and to attempt to elicit pity for people who are not being "victimized" by anybody. Falling on hard times is not the same thing as being made to fall on hard times.

For a parting snapshot of the intent of the article, there is good deal of subtle class-warfare rhetoric thrown into the mix, like here:

In the center of Orange County, a world away from its polished coastal towns, borderline poverty is common but seldom visible. On small streets behind strip malls and fast food restaurants, families, sometimes two of them, cram into small, aging bungalows

…while you sit there in your office, working and eating food, and returning home to your luxury mansions with caviar awaiting you on top of your mountain of ill-gotten money. Or so it would seem. More here:

They spent a year in a borrowed motor home here in the working-class interior of Orange County, followed by eight months in a motel room with a kitchenette.

Hello, Marx! Per usual, the NYT offers no balance, no context and no solutions to its perceived “problem.” Maybe Bill Keller has an answer to this festering “crisis.” He could at least begin by revealing the NYT’s definition of “crisis” and “dire financial news.”