WASHINGTON, DC (AP) December 15, 2011 - New census data gives some confirmation to the notion of a disappearing middle class: Nearly 1 in 2 Americans are now officially either low income or impoverished, the Associated Press reports.
It is also wrong.
How do I know? Because the folks in the newsroom at Los Angeles TV station KNBC did some checking.
They thought that half of America in poverty sounded "a bit off." They took the census bureau report to three analysts and asked for their take on the numbers.
The result: the ratio is actually 1 in 3. They came up with that by combining both the number of people living below the official poverty line as well as the number of those who live above it, but are still classified as low income.
The devil was in the math. Here are the real numbers:
First, you add two Census report figures (the first is "below the poverty line" and the second is "low income"):
Now, divide that sum by the total number of people living in America:
Finally, multiply that result by 100:
Round off that number and there's the actual percentage:
33% of people in the U.S. live "around" the poverty line. 1 in 3.
Just about everyone else in the country reported the 1 in 2 ratio. They got it wrong. Why?
This is just my guess, but I'd say relatively few actually "got it wrong." The vast majority probably just copied someone else's mistake and passed it on. Here are the reasons behind my guess:
1) Reporters for a wire service or network have tremendous power because their stories are rebroadcast or reprinted (think retweet) by hundreds, if not thousands of affiliates.
2) The vast majority of those affiliates don't have the time to check the basic facts of all the stories they get every day from national and international news organizations. To a great extent, they have to trust the wire service/network to get it right.
Scary. A little bit of misinformation... magnified and repeated... can lead to bad decisions by politicians, policymakers and even voters.
And how did ABC 4 do? In the interest of full disclosure, we aired a story from ABC News that got it wrong. The story by ABC's Sunni Haston aired on Good Morning Utah December 15, 2011. It claimed that 48% of the U.S. population was in "poverty."
Apparently we all have a lot of work to do.