Thursday, February 22, 2007

A city by any other name would be as poor

One of the reasons Herald Watch was created was in response to a letter which I submitted to the Herald. My letter was edited to remove a criticism of the paper itself and then published.

My beef then was how the Herald's editorial board used the words Miami and south Florida interchangeably while discussing poverty levels and the various remedies needed to improve them. I criticized the Herald because, while the City of Miami is undoubtedly one of the poorest cities in the country, it's not representative of south Florida or even dade county.

Well, Ana Menendez resorts to the same tactic in her latest column entitled While some indulge, let others eat cake. In the column, she juxtaposes the South Beach Wine and Food Festival with a meal being served at a homeless shelter. Her allegation is that the middle class in south Florida is being eliminated. The problem is that she uses statistics that only encompass the City of Miami.

In Miami, the numbers are more stark: In the same city where new condos sell for millions, one in three people older than 65 lives in poverty. Half of all families led by women are poor, as are 36 percent of the city's children. ''We're a city of extreme poverty and a city of extreme wealth,'' said Bruce Nissen, a labor professor at Florida International University.
Ms. Menendez engages in a statistical "bait and switch". In response to an email from Herald Watch, Ms. Menendez confirmed that the statistics she cited refer to the City of Miami not Miami-Dade county or the region overall.

Here's the thing, Ms. Menendez may be right. The middle class may be disappearing from south Florida leaving us with a very wealthy upper class and lower class that's in poverty but there's no way of telling that from the statistics she cites because the City of Miami only represents 16% of the county's population. And that 16% is admittedly stratified. But there are a lot of middle class communities in the other municipalities and unincorporated parts of the County that make up the balance of the 84% that don't live in Miami. Hialeah, the second largest city in the county is, by and large, a middle class city.

It's intuitive that as people escape poverty they tend to move out of poor areas. This obviously creates serious problems for cities like the City of Miami because the people that move out tend to be replaced by others that are poor that are looking for low-cost housing.

The point is this: If Miami were called something else, say Flagler City then Ana Menendez and the editorial board at the Herald would not be so quick to apply its economic indicators to the whole region or the county.

Setting that aside however Ms. Menendez also uses some faulty logic elsewhere in her column:
In the 1970s, the richest 20 percent accounted for 44 percent of the country's total income. By 2002, they accounted for 50 percent, according to census data. In the meantime, the poorest of the poor earned even less of their share.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke drew attention to the widening income disparity in a recent speech by noting that a full-time worker at the top of the wage scale now earns 4.7 times as much as a worker near the bottom -- up from 3.7 in 1979, The Associated Press reported.
While the statistics above prove that the rich are getting richer relative to the entire population it simply ignores the possibility that everyone's incomes, rich and poor, rose during the periods of time analyzed. In other words it does not necessarily follow that because the rich got richer that the poor got poorer. An analysis of whether this indeed the case is outside of the scope of this blog but Ms. Menendez' manipulation of statistics and facts to "prove" something that may or may not be true is not.

9 comments:

Manuel A. Tellechea said...

Yes, you absolutely nailed Ana Menéndez on her statistical sleight of hand. Of course, you know what her real agenda is: the same one espoused by those who try to paint pre-Castro Cuba in similar colors; the justification of Statism. We know what fruits it bore in Cuba, and Ms. Menéndez desires no less for Miami/Dade County.

asombra said...

Does anybody actually take this "Menendez" person seriously? I see she's still going without the accent required by her surname in Spanish (and it is Spanish, not English). Too ethnic, perhaps? Or maybe too Cuban? Surely the paper wouldn't dare prevent her from using it, what with pluralism and all. If I want an opinion, on anything, she's definitely not the one I'd go to. But yes, I supppose there are those who would buy what she's selling, especially if it's also what they want to hear. No sale here, though, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

I am not defending Ana Menendez's failure to be more precise, accurate, and clear in her use of the income statistics. Nor am I defending any socialist, communisit, anti-hispanic, anti-Cuban, pro-Castro, anti-democracy, or anti-U.S. positions. I'm a good, Catholic, democracy-loving Cuban-American boy. However, her claims are clearly supported by statistical data at a COUNTY wide level. For an excellent presentation of the data (primarily from the 2000/2005 U.S. Census), see The Brookings Institute's report on the Middle Class in Miami-Dade available at http://www.brookings.edu/urban/pubs/20040607_miami.pdf

Given that the data generally supports her claims, it may be worthwhile put aside any vile and manipulative intentions she might have had, forgive any carelessness that might be to blame, and instead work on dealing with the very apparent problem that she so poorly laid out.

Henry Gomez said...

Anonymous, I looked over the report and I have to disagree with your assertion that it generally supports her claims. Her claims are that the rich are getting richer and the middle class is shrinking because they are dropping into the ranks of the poor.

The data in the brookings report certainly shows that that the rich are getting richer relative to the poor. I never denied that. It's just my opinion that a rising tide floats all boats even if some rise substantially more than others.

The data that would either prove or disprove my claim is not present in the brookings document. If you'll look at the second chart on page 13 you will see that the data there (like the data in Ms. Menendez column) is for the City of Miami. I would need to see the same chart for Miami-Dade county. Not only that I would want to see it for the income levels that correspond to all 5 quintiles of US income. That's because we can't assume that the all of the Miami-Dade county residents that are trending out of the income levels associated with the middle US quintiles are trending downward.

There are almost certainly middle class households that are no longer middle class because they moved up the economic ladder not down. Without that data I have no way of knowing how much this factors into the diminishing number of people earning what the middle quintile in the US earns.

Secondly, and maybe even more importantly, the report itself says that Miami-Dade county is exporting middle class people. That's very different than the idea that the middle class is becoming poorer. In many cases the middle class people that are leaving the county are moving just across the county line, in search of affordable housing and better quality of life.

The report itself characterizes Miami as "functioning as a landing and launching pad for foreign-born residents, hampering its ability to
retain middle class residents".

That tells me that far from being broken (despite all the problems we have and which the report mentions) that Miami is an engine for economic prosperity. A person gets here off a raft and 10 years later is moving into a single family home in southwest broward while he is replaced by another rafter in his city of Miami apartment.

This is exactly the kind of movement (that thankfully we have the freedom to take advantage of) that I was referring to in my original letter to the Herald, in this post, and a letter to the New Times a couple of years ago in response to the article that is referenced in the introduction of the brookings piece (you can find that letter at trenblindado.com in the musings section). My point is that we can't draw lines on the ground an cry 'woes me' because some people decide they'd like to live on the other side of the line than they presently live.

Again, my problem is with the idea that something is fundamentally broken and therefore needs to be fixed. The tactics which people like Ana Menedez prescribe for "fixing" what they think is "broken" almost always exascerbates the problems.

The brookings piece is not wrong. It points out some very real issues that need to be solved but Ms. Menendez is way out of her league when she makes the kind of assertions she makes to try to shame those of us who ARE upwardly mobile into thinking that we are somehow responsible for the poverty of others simply because we are upwardly mobile. And I'm here to tell you that even those "low paying" service sector jobs would be gone if it wasn't for the people living in the upper two quintiles.

Henry Gomez said...

Oh and anonymous, check out my related post from the same day at babalublog.com

Anonymous said...

Henry Gomez:

Great response.

I don't disagree with your reading of the Brookings report. However, it seems that we disagree on some fundamental ideas about what are good and "not good" economic trends.

You treat a rising tide that lifts yachts more than other boats as not a bad thing. I’d argue that any such tide is never a good thing. A tide the raised all boats (and yachts) equally would be great. A tide the raised all boats to the same level as yachts would be even better. Economies and communities thrive on the existence of a large middle class. I get the impression that you believe in Reaganomics, please correct me if I’m wrong.

You also argue that “exporting middle class people [is] very different than the idea that the middle class is becoming poorer.” That may be true as far as the individuals/families making the transition are concerned, it may be true for the communities that receive those families, and it may be true for our country as a whole, however, when it comes to the Miami-Dade community that’s mere semantics (which is my polite way of saying it’s “bullshit”) (please take no offense, it’s nothing personal). If the end result from Miami-Dade’s

Finally, you’re willing to base your position--e.g. the problem Menendez wants to “fix” is not that big of a problem--on a few assumptions about data that you haven’t seen (or at least cited). Then you turn around and criticize her for not having that data.

For example, you insist that the upper quintiles make economic progress for the lower one possible but you don’t qualify its significance with actual numbers demonstrating the significance of the impact. Your argument about middle class people crossing the county line faces the same problem. Until you yourself have found the data you’re looking for you shouldn’t put down her argument as being based on faulty assumptions / a lack of data. Or at the very least you should recognize that without some other rational basis for your position you are doing exactly what you claim Menendez is doing.

Menendez is crying “woe me” because she perceives a serious problem. You are crying “woe me” because you perceive a serious problem (Menendez’s advocacy). She says there’s a problem, you say there’s not a problem but in the end neither of you has any more or less justification than your own opinions and gut feelings (her gut says income inequality “almost always” exacerbates economic decline and social suffering and your gut says “trying to fix economic inequality almost always exacerbates economic decline and social suffering).

I’m not saying either of you is right or wrong, just that both of you failed in the same way. For that matter, my positions on the rising tides (second paragraph above) and other arguments herein are of the same character (i.e., I have nothing but my gut, personal experience, and education to support them).

As an aside, I’ll be in the top quintiles very soon thanks to the hard efforts of my Cuban parents who fled Cuba. Miami allowed them to climb the ladder. Miami allowed them to give me the education I needed to climb even higher than them. However, the fact that Miami’s economy allowed my parents and countless others to succeed doesn’t mean that more can’t be done to help others trying to climb the ladder in ways that my parents never knew. Just because my parents had to go it alone doesn’t mean today’s poor, downtrodden yet economically mobile need to go it alone. What would Jesus do?

Henry Gomez said...

Anonymous,

Let's take your points one at a time. First of all you'd have to explain why a rising tide that floats some boats more than others is not desirable or why it's destructive. If everybody is better off this year than they were last year why does it matter that some people's improvement is more than others? It strikes me as utopian wishful thinking that everyone’s boat should rise the same amount.

The idea that rich folks getting richer is a bad thing is, I think, one of the underlying problems I see with Ms. Menendez' analysis. It's like saying deficits are bad. Well they may be bad and the may not be depending on the situation.

The fact is that people at the upper incomes are the ones that bear a bigger tax burden (that’s a pretty well established point, you can google it) and their wealth is large part of the motor of the economy.

You say I'm making sweeping generalities but then you say "Economies and communities thrive on the existence of a large middle class." There’s an awful lot of homespun wisdom floating around these days that doesn’t necessarily conform to economic realities.

Let's separate the debate about the "shrinking middle class" nationally and that of South Florida. Ms. Menendez was throwing a bunch of crap against the wall, hoping some of it would stick when she combined the two.

The criteria from the Brookings report for their study on Miami assume that there is a national middle class and that it's made up of the people that generate middle quintile of HH income. They then use that and apply it to individual geographies within the US. I still have no data from Brookings or anywhere else about how many South Floridians are dropping from the (US) middle quintile into the (US) lower quintiles vs. rising into the (US) higher quintiles. The burden of producing that data isn’t on me. I’m not the one with a newspaper column writing for a newspaper with a circulation of more than a quarter of million. I do this part time, and I know when something smells bad. She’s the one making taking a stance and making assertions with flimsy evidence, I only need to poke holes in her argument. (you will readily concede, I am sure, that what I’m proposing could be true). The data you supplied me doesn’t prove my point but it doesn’t disprove it either. So again the burden shifts back to her and to you by extension because you are defending her. By the way I used census data about the poverty rate (at babalublog.com) to poke holes in her argument. Do you refute that hard evidence?

As far as Reaganomics goes, it depends what you consider Reaganomics. I have an economics degree from the University of Florida where my mentor was a disciple of Milton Friedman. That means I usually identify with the Economics concepts from the University of Chicago School of Business.

The question of whether exporting middle class families is good or bad depends on where you stand. If you are the Mayor of Miami-Dade county (which Ana Menendez is not, she presumably writes for all of South Florida) you may not like it very much because poor people move into your jurisdiction and wealthy people move out. It creates a seemingly perpetual state in which median income and other economic indicators won't rise as much as they would if everybody decided to stay where they lived. But our country doesn't work that way. I don't have an obligation to stay in my neighborhood as my financial situation gets better.

But if you are the poor immigrant (not the mayor) you aspire for better quality of life wherever you may find it. You come to place where costs are low and opportunities are high. As you carve out a niche for yourself you may move several times improving your state each time disregarding the political boundaries you are crossing. In short every market (and I'm referring to markets not counties, markets generally are comprised of several counties) has to have a place for poor people to live. And those poor neighborhoods generally don't become middle class or rich neighborhoods. As people become middle class, they simply move out.

Here's the rub in all of this. You can't have equality of outcomes as you seem to desire.

Here's an illustration of why exporting middle class families does not necessarily mean something is "broken."

Think of Miami-Dade's economy as a machine for producing people and Miami-Dade county itself is the warehouse where all the inputs and outputs are stored. Someone might come in one day and see 50 gallons of input material and come the next day and see 50 gallons of input material and that person might wrongly assume that the machine is broken but he didn't ask how much of the end product was made and shipped out.

How can a machine that imports droves of poor people every year and exports upwardly mobile people every year (without any noticeable downward effect on income for the people living in the machine) be broken?

Anonymous said...

I never said my sweeping generalizations were any better or worse than yours and Menendez's.

I'm not arguing that "the machine is broken." I'm saying you should not complain that Menendez thinks its broken because in the end your position is no better.

Rather, I think the important thing is to make the machine better than it is. Yes, maybe it's utopian to raise all yachts to the same level but why not attempt?

You seem to argue that Menendez's problem is jumping to fix something that aint broke "exacerbates" problems. I'd say having a pissy fit at somebody's proposal (1) without proposing an alternative or (2) arguing for no changes whatsoever is, quite simply, stupid, unproductive, and argument for argument's sake.

The only new point you raised (or at least that I don't feel my prior comments address) is your final one.

You say a poor population has no noticeable affect on the income of the residents.

That may be true but a large population of poor (as opposed say to a large middle class) cannot pay for the government services or provide the government experties (i.e. well educated & otherwise qualified candidated) that a middle class could provide. In other words, a poor population cannot pay for its own high-demanding government services.
(take my suggestsion with the grain of salt that I haven't economic data...but then again you haven't presented any either).

Additionally, the brookings report suggest that poor people don't leave town. Rather, poor are not all that mobile. (in a geographic sense and an economic sense).

Henry Gomez said...

Show me where in the post I pitch "a pissy fit".

I don't have to propose a solution to problem I'm not sure exists. By the way, this blog is about journalism not public policy. But you can't have journalists advocating for public policy while using bogus stats.

Is it not true that Ms. Menendez used city statistics and applied them to the county and the region in general?

That's a fact, and it's sloppy journalism. Sloppy journalism that the Herald and the New Times have engaged in, in the past.

I never said "a poor population has no noticeable affect on the income of the residents."

Re-read the passage. People are arriving in Miami-Dade poor and jobless, and people are leaving Miami-dade with some wealth. If the people that replace people that leave aren't progressing economically, you'd see downward trends in income which you don't. You'd also see upward trends in poverty, which you don't.

Have a nice day.