POLITICS FEBRUARY 8, 2011
By now, it’s easy to be cynical about the Internet’s ability to degrade rational argument. After all, one can only read so many birther blogs without starting to go numb. Still, once in a while, the foggy chaos that is the online world parts, and we catch a glimpse of how the realm’s worst ideas form, adapt to the environment, and, despite their utter lack of fitness anywhere else (well, with the popular exceptions of AM radio and Fox News), thrive in cyberspace.
Perhaps the best recent example is a chart that has been racing around the conservative blogosphere for the last few months. According to its findings, a one-parent family with two children making $14,500 a year has more disposable income than an identical family making $60,000 a year; a family making just $3,625 a year doesn’t quite do as well as the one making $60,000, but it comes close. Those who publish the chart claim it shows that it pays to be poor in America because of government largesse, courtesy of Obama and the Democrats, that the middle class doesn’t have access to.
Problem is, the chart is full of errors. I traced it back to the man who made it, a newspaper publisher in Mississippi, and found that the math, methodology, and logic he used to generate the chart, as well as an op-ed he wrote to accompany it, are wholly unsound. To make matters worse, despite the chart’s cringe-worthy flaws, very few outlets on the Internet, from small-scope blogs to a handful of forums hosted by major national publications, bothered to fact-check it. The story of the chart is a distressing new Exhibit A for those who argue that, practically speaking, there’s no longer any such thing as objective reality in the digital age.
The sentiment that the poor are pampered by “big government” and simply mooch off the system isn’t new. But it took on a heightened resonance recently, as Congress sought to hammer out an agreement on the extension of unemployment benefits—and conservatives jumped at the chance to argue against them. “The truth is the unemployed will spend as little of that money as they possibly can,” Republican Representative John Shadegg of Arizona said on MSNBC. “I’m opposed to giving people money for doing nothing,” Newt Gingrich said in a speech.
Wyatt Emmerich was among those concerned that, with government benefits propping them up, poor people might not have an incentive to work. So the Harvard graduate, who was born into a newspaper-publishing business in Greenwood, Mississippi, and now runs a paper of his own, spent some time this fall playing around with online calculators that, he told me, allow people to determine, by plugging in family size and income, how much in government benefits they are eligible for. Wyatt then published the results he’d found in his newspaper, the Northside Sun. In an October 14 column headlined, “WITH WELFARE IT MAKES SENSE TO WORK LESS,” Wyatt spun out his theory about unemployment and the poor:
People don’t want to work. Especially in the Delta, people just won’t show up on time and often fail drug tests.
“How can this be?” you may ask. You have to work to eat. Well, that’s really not true anymore. In fact, our welfare state rewards not working. You can do as well working one week a month at minimum wage as you can working a $60,000-a-year, full-time, high-stress job. …
A one-parent family of three making $14,500 a year (minimum wage) has more disposable income than a family [of the same size] making $60,000 a year.
To back up this claim, Emmerich provided a chart ostensibly based on the numbers he’d uncovered during his online tinkering:
I sent the chart to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and its researchers replied with a lengthy dossier of the chart’s errors. For starters, Emmerich overestimated the federal tax liability of the $60,000 family by failing to distinguish between gross and taxable income (the $60,000 family only has $40,400 in taxable income, according to the CBPP) and by ignoring the child tax credit, which benefits wealthier families more than poorer ones. The family making $60,000 would actually pay only about $8,043 in payroll and income taxes, not $13,034. As for Medicaid, CBPP pointed out that a family making $14,500 wouldn’t actually be eligible in Mississippi, where the cutoff level of qualifying income for a family of three is a paltry $8,064 per year. Even if that family were eligible, however, Emmerich’s estimate of their benefits is way off. Medicaid is a relative bargain for Mississippi—the state spends, on average, $2,510 a year per adult beneficiary and $1,659 per child beneficiary, according to the most recent numbers.
So how did Emmerich arrive at the inflated $16,500 number? I put the question to him, and he told me that he got it by estimating what it would cost the family to buy private insurance on the open market if they did not have Medicaid, applying his own copays and deductible to the equation. (Although Emmerich lumped CHIP into the same category as Medicaid in his chart, he didn’t consider the two benefits separately in this calculation—which is just as well, since children on Medicaid aren’t eligible for CHIP in the first place.) Even if we accept this dubious methodology, however, Emmerich’s numbers are extreme overestimates. I went to ehealthinsurance.com, a website that provides information on various insurance plans, and got price quotes for a 24-year-old woman with two young kids living near Jackson, Mississippi, where Emmerich’s newspaper is located. The costs were substantially lower than I expected—for less than $500 a month, the woman could cover herself and her kids, pay no coinsurance, and have only a $3,000 deductible. The grand total? Far less than $16,500. But getting roped into analyzing the costs is also problematic, since a mere 6 percent of working adults get health insurance on the private market, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. An overwhelming majority get employer-sponsored insurance, which, because the government subsidizes it through the tax code, is cheaper: On average, according to Kaiser, Americans who get health care in this way paid just $3,997 for coverage in 2010.
Another big problem with the chart is the Section 8 portion. It probably shouldn’t have been included, given the scarcity of the vouchers and the complicated process required to obtain them. Seven out of 10 eligible families don’t receive Section 8 benefits, according to CBPP. But, even if the families in the chart were lucky enough to receive the vouchers, Emmerich botched this calculation by basing it on a percentage of each family’s income. This is not how Section 8 subsidies are determined; rather, eligibility and the subsidy amount are based on factors like family assets, the unit in question’s rental price, and the median income in a given county. In other words, Emmerich simply couldn’t have determined this amount with such limited information. (When I asked Emmerich to direct me to the online calculators, including the one for Section 8, that he had allegedly used to make the chart, he told me he didn’t know where they were because his browser history had expired. His column mentioned “[o]ne Web site … GovBenefits.org … [that] gave me a list of dozens of additional programs and private grants available to low-income family providers.” But plugging in that URL reveals that GovBenefits.org is a placeholder site with links to “Online College” and “Free Money.”)
Perhaps more frustrating than the chart’s numerical errors is the language that accompanies it. In the column he penned for his newspaper, Emmerich’s claimed that the family making $14,500 has more “disposable income” than the family making $60,000, a reference to the “total” numbers at the bottom of the chart. But the chart conflates disposable income with economic benefits. Some items on the chart, like the tax credit, are disposable income, unrestricted money the families can use as they please. But other items, like food stamps, are government benefits that must be used for specific purposes. Adding these two types of items together is like adding apples and oranges.
When I asked Emmerich about his decision to use “disposable income” in his column to describe the totals in his chart, he quickly acknowledged that “‘economic benefit’ … is the more precise term.” But this error had already done its damage: As Emmerich’s chart and column gained momentum around the Internet, people continued to refer to its totals as “disposable income.” Then, like Emmerich, they used this descriptor to take an absurd leap of logic, asserting that, with money in their pockets, poor people have no incentive to hold jobs.
If Emmerich did not have a particularly clear sense of his methodology, he was sure of his logic: that his numbers prove government benefits are discouraging the poor from working. What’s more, he was sure the numbers he’d uncovered (or concocted, depending on how you look at it) would have an impact. “I thought, ‘You know, I bet if I send this out on my e-mail chain, I bet this thing could get circulated,’” he told me, referring to an e-listserv he’s on that regularly sends out links.
Emmerich’s instinct was right. After about a month, his chart landed in a forum on Sean Hannity’s website. (“It demonstrates very nicely why productivity should never be taxed,” opined one poster. “And as a side demo, subsidy for sloth is another bad plan.”) It was also picked up by Yahoo! News via The Atlantic Wire. Countless other sites soon joined the list. And, somewhere along the way, the chart became credited to “Source: Wyatt Emmerich, theclevelandcurrent.com”—meaning even the citation got botched.
A major node in this great game of Internet telephone was the conservative blog Zero Hedge, where, on November 21, poster “Tyler Durden” noted:
Emmerich analyzes disposable income and economic benefits among several key income classes and comes to the stunning (and verifiable) conclusion that “a one-parent family of three making $14,500 a year (minimum wage) has more disposable income than a family making $60,000 a year.” … Ever wonder why Obama was so focused on health reform? It is so those who have no interest or ability in working, make as much as representatives of America’s once exalted, and now merely endangered, middle class.
From Zero Hedge, the chart ascended to one of the highest points on the right-wing totem pole: The Corner. Veronique de Rugy posted the chart on this well-read National Review blog on December 10, around the time that President Obama was in the final stages of hammering out a tax deal that would include cuts on high earners. “Maybe President Obama and Mr. Krugman should direct some of their attention to this problem,” snarked de Rugy, “rather than spending so much of their time complaining that the rich don’t get soaked enough.” In other words, she took Emmerich’s chart at face value.
Granted, The Corner doesn’t always comport itself in an impressive manner, but it’s still a blog for a major national publication. One would hope such a forum would check the numbers that supposedly back up a claim as provocative as Emmerich’s. And The Corner wasn’t the only website that disseminated Emmerich’s chart to a broader audience: The post on The Atlantic Wire (which was later mirrored by Yahoo! News) conveyed some skepticism about the chart and eventually linked to a handful of rebuttals, but the author of the post clearly didn’t look into the chart’s veracity for himself before publishing it. Instead, by posting the chart largely unchallenged, the blog implied that it might hold some relevance and legitimacy.
Indeed, the real story here isn’t necessarily Emmerich’s fuzzy math; as important is the fact that the chart was posted again and again with so little discussion of its accuracy. If those who pushed the chart along in its Internet journey cared about its content and the methodology, rather than its underlying political message, they could have done a little Googling. It wouldn’t have taken much to crack the surface, get below the presumption that poor people are coddled by the government, and find the beginning of a long list of problems with Emmerich’s work. But, perhaps because of ideological bent or maybe due to simple laziness, people decided that no fact-checking was required.
Emmerich, it turns out, was partially right. In Obama’s America, there are people who have little incentive to work: Internet pundits, particularly conservative ones—and especially those who think poor people are a threat to America.
Jesse Singal writes for The Boston Globe’s opinion pages. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alexander C. Hart, a reporter-researcher for The New Republic, contributed research to this article.