As images of hurricane victims filled the nation’s TV screens last September, network reporters and contributors painted the war on poverty as “ignored and lost.” But when the poverty rate recently showed an end to its four-year increase – and incomes rose – the media were far less interested. In fact, they continued to insist that paychecks were dropping.
“The economy is strong, American companies are thriving, productivity is up, profits as well, so why aren't paychecks on the rise as well?” asked NBC’s Matt Lauer on the August 31 “Today” show.
Just two days earlier, the Census Bureau had announced  the first rise in real median income in six years.
The same day NBC reported paychecks were declining, the Commerce Department said incomes were up 7.1 percent in the past 12 months. As reported by Bloomberg: “The report also showed incomes rose 0.5 percent in July after a 0.6 increase the previous month. Incomes were up 7.1 percent from the same month last year.”
The new Census data also showed poverty in America declined slightly in 2005. Although the Census Bureau didn’t consider the slip from 12.7 percent to 12.6 percent to be statistically significant, it was significant because it was the first time since 2000 the rate had not increased.
Understandably, on August 29 when the Census Bureau released this report, the three networks’ evening news programs were focusing on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Even though poverty in the hurricane zone has been a key issue, the networks didn’t feature stories on poverty’s stabilized numbers.
On Labor Day, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien continued the pessimistic line on workers’ fortunes. She cited a poll that showed 63 percent of Americans feeling negatively about the economy – a feeling O’Brien seemed to reinforce with her questions to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
Chao explained on the September 4 “American Morning” that consumer spending was strong and that the economy had “not so much a wage gap, but a skills gap” requiring more training and education for workers.
O’Brien countered: “But in fact, aren’t some of those jobs that are being created are low-skill jobs and jobs that don’t pay as well, so what ends up happening is yeah, you’ve added jobs to the rolls, but they’re not as good as the jobs that the people are actually losing?”
“No, that’s not true,” Chao replied, explaining that “our economy is evolving. It’s transitioning to a knowledge-based economy. And so workers with higher skills, more education, will be in greater demand.”
O’Brien moved on to argue on wages, saying that workers weren’t seeing much money: “…as far as money that you get to bring home to buy groceries, no. You’re not seeing anything more in your pocket.”
“No, that’s not true, either,” Chao said. “After tax, on an after-tax basis, personal income has actually risen.”
O’Brien even resurrected the minimum wage debate, and Chao reminded her 2 percent of the work force (137 million strong) earns minimum wage – and “less than 225,000 people who are head of households who earn minimum wage.”
Chao also added historical context about the poverty rate. Though the rate is now about 12.6 percent, she reminded viewers that it was higher in the 1990s. “So the poverty rate has dropped and overall, incomes have increased,” she said.
Last Year’s Buzzword: Poverty
To be sure, the broadcast networks were far more interested in poverty 12 months ago when it was still going up. CBS even brought in actress/comedian Nancy Giles as a contributor, who on Sept. 4, 2005, said, “The real war is not in Iraq but right here in America. It's the war on poverty, and it's a war that's been ignored and lost.” Giles added: “We've repeatedly given tax cuts to the wealthiest and left our most vulnerable American citizens to basically fend for themselves.”
Not to be outdone, Newsweek Senior Editor Jonathan Alter wrote a cover story in the Sept. 19, 2005, issue entitled “The Other America .” Alter claimed that “this disaster may offer a chance to start a skirmish, or at least make Washington think harder about why part of the richest country on earth looks like the Third World.” He even claimed that “after a decade of improvement in the 1990s, poverty in America is actually getting worse.”
But according to the Census Bureau, poverty is lower than it was in the 1990s. For nine years of the decade from 1990 to 1999, the rate was higher than the 2005 rate of 12.6 percent, reaching a high of 15.1 percent in 1993.
But this wasn’t the first time Alter reportedly had had trouble with facts. In a Washington Post review of Alter’s book “FDR'S Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope,” Alonzo L. Hamby wrote that “One finds numerous misconceptions, mangled names and flubbed dates.”
Alter’s magazine chose not to feature the new Census report showing improvements for American workers, despite its chastising the American people last year for not focusing enough attention on poverty. In its Sept. 11, 2006, issue published after August 29’s Census report, Newsweek’s cover story dealt with whether or not first-graders were being put under too much pressure at such an early age.
Amy Menefee, Deputy Editor with the Business & Media Institute, co-wrote this article. Noel Sheppard is a contributing writer to BMI, as well as a contributing editor for the Media Research Center’s NewsBusters.org. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.