March 29, 2015

March 26, 2015


It isn’t often you come across two articles, on the same page in one newspaper that defy intellectual rigor and speak so loudly to a mentality that demeans people of lesser means than these two articles which appeared in the March 25 edition of the WSJ:  “Why the SAT Isn’t a ‘Student Affluence Test’” by Charles Murray and “The Next Welfare Reform:  Food Stamps” by Jason Riley.

First, Charles Murray.  Never one from whom I’d expect cultural sensitivity or recognition that people of lesser income face tough challenges, Murray in this article descends into absurd conclusions from statistics he presents.

The starting point of his article is a fact.  On SAT tests, as one shifts from family incomes of more than $200,000 to incomes of less than $20,000, you find the average student score on the combined math and reading tests drops from the 74th percentile to the 31st, a drop of 43 percentiles.  Yes, this is income related. 

Then, drawing on a closely related other test, he notes that the movement of family income from $125,000 to $200,000 only results in the score moving up 3 percentage points, from the 76th percentile to the 73rd, “a trivial change.”

How does he go on to explain this and what does he make of it?  What he seemingly wants to make of it is that income differences really aren’t that important.  He does it by asserting that although children from families of $125,000 “probably live in an unremarkable home in a middle class neighborhood and send their children to public schools,” they suffer “only a trivial disadvantage when competing with children from families who are far more wealthy.”  Implicit here is the notion that a $125,000 income is “not that well off.”  Fact:  it is two and a half times the average household.  The fact that SAT scores within that income band don’t differ a lot doesn’t strike me as remarkable.  What makes it even less unremarkable is what Murray tells us next:  the comparison has been carried out among families whose mothers have equal IQs.  How about that?  He puts aside entirely the well-established fact that a mother’s IQ, which has been influenced by her family’s structure (including its income) would have an effect on her child.  In other words, we are likely seeing, at least to some degree, a multi-generational effect. 

But that’s only the start, and the lesser, of Murray’s misuse of data.
He next talks about a family with an income of $60,000 (without disclosing the SAT results at that level), saying [they] are “likely to be regularly employed, with all the things that regular employment says about a family.  The parents are likely to be conveying advantages other than IQ, such as self-discipline, determination and resilience—‘grit’—as this cluster of hard-to-measure qualities is starting to be called in the technical literature.”  He thereby implies, without stating it, that the difference in SAT scores between a $60,000 income and the previously stated $200,000 income is small (a “non-established fact”) because they share “grit.” 

Then, he moves on to an income level of $15,000 for which we have already learned there is a major differentiation in SAT scores vs. a higher income family.  About this family, he says they are “more likely to be irregularly employed or subsisting on welfare, with negative implications for that same bundle of attributes.  Somewhere near $100,000, the marginal increments in ‘grit’ associated with the greater income taper off and further increases in income make little difference.” 

Here he is suggesting, that lower-income families are in that position importantly because they lack “grit.”  Tell that to somebody who is working for $9/hour, 40 hours a week, doing the best they can with the education they have, and taking home less than $20,000/year before taxes.

Where does Murray end up after this confused presentation of stereotypical thinking and sloppy statistics?  He says: “What we need is an educational system that brings children of all combination of assets and deficits, having identified things they enjoy doing and having learned how to do them well.  What we need is a society that has valued places for people with all combinations of assets and deficits.  Both goals call for completely different agendas than the ones that dominate today’s rhetoric about educational and economic inequality.”

Here he is, making the assumption that children are born with immutable potentialities for success that won’t be influenced decisively by the kind of early childhood support (health, education and much else) in their first five years that would allow them to fulfill their God-given abilities. 

No, he assumes it’s largely given from the start.  Some children are sort of designed for a “middling” life.  How sad; how wrong.


Well, if that weren’t enough, I came next to the column by Jason L. Riley:  “The Next Welfare Reform:  Food Stamps.”  I won’t spend as much time on this.  First, we would all strongly agree that there needs to be a thorough analysis of the sources and causes of the increase in SNAP caseloads from 17.2 million to 47.6 million from 2000 to 2013, as spending quadrupled from $20 billion to $80 billion.  Yes, that requires analysis. 

But the underlying hypotheses in this article are, to put it bluntly, heinous.   

Here are some snapshots.  “The unprecedented jump in food stamp use over the past six years has mostly been driven by manufactured demand.  The Obama Administration has attempted to turn SNAP into a middleclass entitlement by easing eligibility rules and recruiting new food stamp recipients.”  Note those words.  “Recruiting new food stamp recipients”; turning it into a “middleclass entitlement.” 

Going on, he asserts that the President “considers European-style welfare states a model for America.”   Has anyone ever heard the President say this?

He notes that 56% of SNAP users are in the program for longer than five years which “suggests that the assistance is being used by most recipients as a permanent source of income, not as a temporary safety net.”  I’d say it more likely indicates that the level of their income has remained very low, despite the efforts they have made to escape poverty. 

And if that wasn’t enough, get this.  “Instead of hunger being a central nutritional problem facing the poor, the problem is not too little food but rather too much—or at least too many calories.”  Yes, he says, the problem is that people are eating too much.  I’m sure quite a few people are.  Probably even more of those of higher income!  But let’s face it, there are a lot of people, including millions of children, who don’t know where they are going to get their next meal.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t improvements to be made in this program.  Any expenditure this large demands a careful review.  But the mindset of the author of this article, Jason Riley, is so negative, so unappreciative of the challenges that people of lesser means face, it’s positively maddening.

He concludes the article by sharply criticizing Ohio Congresswoman Marcia Fudge because of her support for immigration reform and more education and, yes, food stamps for those who need it.

I like Ms. Fudge’s platform.

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