There was a feature on MLive today about the newly released census data and what it tells us about the trajectory of Michigan’s economy. After stating, “median income in three out of every four Michigan cities and villages (had) declined in the past five years,” and that “the share of people living in poverty has risen in two-thirds of the state’s communities,” the author of the piece, reporter Matt Vande Bunte, shared the following: “Statewide, more than one out of every six people are living in poverty, a 17 percent increase from the previous 5-year period.”
My first inclination was to take to the internet and lash out at our governor, Rick Snyder. But, as I sat here, thinking about how to best go about skewering him on Facebook, it occurred to me that something just didn’t sound right about it. So, as I often do, I reached out to my census-loving friend Richard Murphy and asked if it was true that our poverty rate had risen 17% over the past five years. And, as it turns out, I was right to have been suspicious.
According to Murphy, who has since taken to his own website to explain what’s really going on, the article fell short on a number of fronts. Perhaps most notably, they chose to compare five-year periods, instead of looking at the change from year to hear. Here’s an excerpt from Murphy’s analysis, which you really should read for yourselves. [Just follow that last link.]
…Any place the numbers “2014” and “2009” are used in these reports, they’re wrong. The new Census data is the 5-Year American Community Survey data for the period 2010-2014. These numbers are the result of surveys given over a 5-year period and rolled up (with some weightings) to create a statistically representative sample.
The Census Bureau’s pre-release webinar for media users explicitly states that the data “describe the average characteristics over a specific period of time, not a single point in time”. (The webinar also states the 5-year data should be used when “No 1-year estimate is available”. More on that in a minute.)
So what the data actually show is that, during the period 2010-2014, Michigan’s poverty rate was 16.9%, 2.4 percentage points higher than Michigan’s poverty rate of 14.5% during the period 2005-2009.
Those are big blocks of time. In 2005, the housing boom was in turbo-mode and would be for sometime longer–and that’s averaged in with the 2009 depths of the recession. Similarly, the “new” data covers a period from 2010–still on the economic rocks–to 2014. This is not the right data to use to describe changes “in the past five years”, because that entire 5 year period is lumped together as a single data point.
So… do we know anything at all about poverty trends?
Sure. Actually, much more useful data for this was released back in September, when the 1-year ACS numbers came out. While the 5-year ACS data covers areas down to the “block group” scale (around 1,000 people, as a rule of thumb), the 1-year data only covers areas of at least 60,000 people, in order to have statistically meaningful sample sizes. Fortunately, Michigan’s population is over 60,000 people, despite what decades of national press might lead one to believe.
Looking at the 1-year ACS numbers, Michigan’s poverty rate over time looks like this:
2005 – 13.2%
2006 – 13.5%
2007 – 14%
2008 – 14.4%
2009 – 16.2%
2010 – 16.8%
2011 – 17.5%
2012 – 17.4%
2013 – 17%
2014 – 16.2%
From these one-year numbers, you can see that Michigan’s poverty rate in 2014 was the same as in 2009, at 16.2%, and that the poverty rate peaked in 2011, dropping every year since. These numbers also clearly show why the five-year bundle of 2005-2009 is a bad data point to use for “the recession”, and 2010-2014 a bad data point for “the recovery”…
So, no, there wasn’t really “a 17 percent increase (in poverty) from the previous 5-year period,” as was reported. In fact, the rate, as you can see above, has actually been dropping. So, if you, like me, want to hate Rick Snyder for something, you’ll have to look for something else… This, of course, isn’t to say that a 16.2% is acceptable, or that the people of Michigan aren’t suffering as a result of the policies coming out of Lansing. We clearly are. I just think it’s important that we all know the real facts… I should also add that, in spite of the fact that our statewide average is 16.2%, that doesn’t mean the rate isn’t much higher in cities like Ypsilanti, where close to one-in-three live in poverty.