Media and Politics

The Washington Post Ran a Correction to Its Disability Story. Here’s Why It’s Still Wrong.

Last week, TalkPoverty pointed out several serious problems with The Washington Post’s recent analysis of Social Security disability benefits in rural America. Yesterday, The Post issued a correction alongside new calculations. Unfortunately, there are still major problems with their data—and their central thesis.

For starters, The Post continues to over-count “working-age” beneficiaries by including more than half a million people over 65—even adding in some people who are more than 80 years old. Moreover, instead of using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS)—what the Census calls “the premier source for detailed information about the American people”—The Post uses a far less common data setThe CDC’s “Bridged-Race Population Estimates” data set was developed for the purpose of permitting “estimation and comparison of race-specific statistics.” It is used by researchers whose main goal is to calculate consistent birth and death rates for small-sized racial and ethnic groups—not at all what The Post’s analysis attempts to do. Researchers commonly adjust data for special purposes—but with the understanding that in doing so, they sacrifice the data’s accuracy in other ways. from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Compared to ACS data, these data undercount the number of working-age people in rural counties, which in turn jacks up The Post’s findings on the percentages of working-age people who are receiving disability benefits in these counties.

But let’s not lose the forest for the trees here. Even using The Post’s flawed methods, they were only able to find one county—out of more than 3,100 counties nationwide—where the story’s central claim that “as many as one-third of working-age adults are receiving monthly disability checks” holds up. Not a single other county even comes close. In fact, The Post’s own analysis—which it has now made available in a public data file next to the story, yields an average rate of about 9.1 percent of working-age adults receiving benefits across rural counties—just three percentage points higher than the national average.*

And yet the article is framed as follows: “Across large swaths of the country,” the article still reads, “disability has become a force that has reshaped scores of mostly white, almost exclusively rural communities, where as many as one-third of working-age adults are receiving monthly disability checks.”

If by “large swaths” and “scores of… rural communities” The Post means McDowell County, West Virginia, population less than 21,000 residents—and nowhere else in America—then sure.

But the fact is there’s a word for using data this way: cherry-picking.

Moreover, if you swap out the unusual data set The Post chose for the aforementioned Census Bureau’s ACS data, you actually won’t find a single county in the U.S. where The Post’s central claim is true—and the dramatic percentages The Post’s map and other graphics depict start to look a lot less, well, dramatic.

Media should take great care in its coverage of critical programs like Social Security Disability Insurance. Reporting based on outliers—not to mention flawed data analysis—risks misleading the public and policymakers in ways that could jeopardize the economic wellbeing and even survival of millions of Americans with serious disabilities and severe illnesses who are already living on the financial brink.

Here’s hoping the rest of The Post’s disability series meets the highest bar for accuracy, even if that means less click-bait.

*The figure is the population-weighted average based on the working age population per The Post’s public data file. Researchers customarily use population-weighted averages to account for variations in county size.

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Media and Politics

The Tax March is About More Than Trump’s Tax Returns. Here’s Why.

This Saturday, tens of thousands of Americans, in more than 120 communities, are planning to take to the streets again. The Tax Marches, planned for the traditional date that taxes are due, are designed to hold Trump accountable for his own lack of financial transparency and to call for a more equitable tax system. That boils down to two specific demands: That Donald Trump immediately release his tax returns, and that he drop his dangerous plan to slash taxes for billionaires and corporations.

For years, Trump has been moving the mark on when he’ll release his tax returns. First, he was going to release them if he ran for office. Then, he promised we’d see them once the IRS finished its audit. Finally, in January, Kellyanne Conway dropped the pretense and said he’ll never release them, arguing that his win in November means Americans must not care about them.

The trouble is, Conway has it exactly backwards: It is precisely because Trump won in November that people care about his tax returns.

The president’s tax returns will give us definitive answers about his ties to Russia. Trump has a long and troubling record of defending the Kremlin, praising Vladimir Putin, and doing business with Russian oligarchs. Earlier this month, a Reuters investigation found that “at least 63 individuals with Russian passports or addresses have bought at least $98.4 million worth of property in seven Trump-branded luxury towers in southern Florida.” Donald Trump Jr. has even admitted that Trump Organization businesses “see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Only by revealing Trump’s full tax returns will we know if Trump is bought and paid for by Russia — and compromising our national security from the Oval Office.

The president’s tax returns will give us definitive answers.

The potential conflicts of interest go beyond just Russia. With Congress preparing to rewrite the tax code, President Trump could use tax reform as a vehicle to slash taxes for himself and the Trump Organization while cutting critical investments in our schools and neighborhoods. If he is going to propose reforms to the tax system, he needs to release his own taxes first. That is the only way Americans can know if he is pushing policies — including tax cuts — that will benefit himself, his Goldman Sachs cabinet, and super rich friends.

For decades, corporations, Wall Street, and CEOs like Trump have exploited loophole after loophole to cut down on their tax bill. Now, Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell are going even further by proposing dramatic tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans, at the expense of critical programs like Meals on Wheels, food stamps, and FEMA.

Instead of slashing taxes for billionaires, a serious tax reform plan will fix the gross injustices in the tax code and build a fairer, more equitable system that closes loopholes, invests in communities, and puts more money in the hands of working Americans.

That’s why Americans are marching tomorrow. They’re standing against a president who has flirted with corruption, and sending a message to our representatives in Washington: It is time to start defending our country’s long tradition of open and ethical government.

Trump needs to come clean with the American people and release his tax returns. In our American democracy, We the People are Trump’s boss. He works for us. And we will not tolerate his dangerous attack on our country’s democratic principles of transparency and accountability.

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Media and Politics

The Washington Post’s Data on Social Security Disability is Just Plain Wrong

Earlier this month, The Washington Post ran a front-page story about Social Security disability benefits in rural counties, followed this past Sunday by an editorial calling for a wholesale restructuring of Social Security Disability Insurance.Often called SSDI, this is the plank of Social Security that replaces some of your lost wages if you become disabled before reaching retirement age. Several SSDI experts, including our colleague Rebecca Vallas, as well as Kathleen Romig of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Dean Baker of the Center on Economic Policy Research, published responses explaining what the Post missed in their reporting. But it turns out the article’s problems go even deeper than they thought. Not only does the Post’s reporting paint a misleading picture about SSDI, but the data analysis they published is just plain wrong.

The Post’s central assertion—flanked by an interactive map—was that as many as one-third of working-age adults in rural communities are living on monthly disability checks. But the data analysis supporting this argument doesn’t hold up.

In a sidebar to the article, the Post says they used publicly available county-level data from the Social Security Administration (SSA) to count “every working-age person who receives benefits through the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program or both.” But the Social Security Administration doesn’t publish the data needed for that calculation. In an email response to our request for these data, the SSA  confirmed that these data are “not readily available.”

The Center for American Progress also reached out to the Post to ask about their data. The Post confirmed in an email exchange that they did indeed rely on publicly available data, and identified the specific reports, tables, and figures they used.

We tried to replicate their analysis, and here’s why their numbers are flat-out wrong. (Warning: We are about to dive head-first into the weeds.)

The analysis overcounts working-age people receiving disability benefits by nearly 500,000. The SSA doesn’t publish county-level data on SSDI beneficiaries in the age range the Post defines as “working age” (18 to 64). SSA’s OASDI Beneficiaries by State and County report does provide county-level data on SSDI beneficiaries (Table 4), including disabled worker beneficiaries. However, of the 8,909,430 disabled worker SSDI beneficiaries whom the table breaks down by county, 472,080—or about 5 percent—are age 65 or older. Including these older disabled workers would inflate the share of working-age people with disabilities.

It overcounts “disabled adult children” by about 750,000. About 1 million SSDI beneficiaries are disabled adult children (DACs)—people whose disability onset occurred before age 22 and who are insured for SSDI benefits based on a parent’s work record. Since the Post claims to count working-age people receiving SSDI, SSI, or both, they need to include working-age DACs. But—contrary to the Post’s data sidebar—there are no data available on working-age DACs at the county level.

The same SSA table from above does provide county-level data on one group of “children” receiving SSDI—totaling 1,755,276 in 2015. The problem is, these children aren’t disabled adults—they’re actually the offspring of disabled workers. Most are under age 18, and most are not disabled. Not only does erroneously using these data mean including minors without disabilities, it also inflates the number of DACs by about three-quarters of a million, since the total number of DACs aged 18-64 is 977,776. What’s more, offspring of disabled workers and DACs are likely differently distributed across counties, creating problems in county-level comparisons.

It can’t accurately adjust for double-counting the 1.3 million working-age people who receive both SSDI and SSI (a.k.a. “concurrent beneficiaries”). About 1.3 million working-age Americans receive a small amount in benefits from both SSDI and SSI—generally people with very low incomes and limited resources. To avoid double-counting these folks, the Post would need county-level figures on concurrent beneficiaries. But here they run into another problem: SSA doesn’t publish county-level data on working-age concurrent beneficiaries. The Social Security Administration does provide the number of people receiving both SSI and Social Security benefits of any type (Table 3), but that figure also includes people receiving any other kind of Social Security benefit (like survivor or retirement benefits). What’s more, they also include concurrent beneficiaries who are children and adults 65 and older. Both of these issues make it impossible to calculate for working-age beneficiaries receiving both SSDI and SSI at the county level. So these county-level figures can’t give the Post what they need to accurately mitigate their double-counting problem.

It’s missing data for a whopping 106 counties. Mostly because of small population size, SSA doesn’t publish county-level data on SSI beneficiaries for 106 counties. This would be problematic for any county-level analysis. But it’s especially notable given that the Post’s article focuses on rural counties—as some 97 of the counties with missing data are rural. It’s unclear how the Post treats these counties in their analysis.

This might seem like a lot of trouble to go through to explain two inaccurate newspaper articles. But the thing is, misleading media reports have consequences—particularly in political climates like the one we’re living in right now. Just this week, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney once again opened the door to cutting Social Security Disability Insurance, despite President Trump’s pledge not to cut Social Security. Misleading media reports based on inaccurate data analysis risk giving Mulvaney and others cover to slash critical programs like SSDI.

Media covering this important program should get their facts straight before going to press.

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Media and Politics

Mike Pence’s Policies Aren’t “Traditional.” They’re Dangerous.

Last month, Vice President Mike Pence cast the deciding vote on a measure that targets funding for Planned Parenthood clinics. His vote—which broke a 50-50 tie in the Senate—makes it legal for states to revoke federal Title X funds from clinics that provide abortion services, jeopardizing access to reproductive health care for millions of women.

Pence’s vote came as no surprise. A week into his tenure as vice president, he addressed thousands of abortion opponents at the 44th annual March for Life. Days earlier, his administration instituted a particularly draconian version of the Global Gag Rule, which bans NGOs that receive U.S. aid from counseling anyone on abortion, and a week later it announced a nominee to the Supreme Court chosen in no small part because he poses an existential threat to Roe v. Wade.

All in the name of traditional family values.

Pence has built an entire career on his family values narrative. In 2006, as a Congressman, he supported a constitutional amendment to define marriage as strictly between a man and a woman—same-sex couples, he said, threaten to usher in “societal collapse.” In 2015, as governor of Indiana, he made national news for signing a bill that legalized discrimination against LGBT couples. A year later, he signed a law restricting access to abortion and—as part of his continued quest to make health care as awful as possible for women—requiring that fetal remains from abortions or miscarriages at any stage of pregnancy be buried or cremated.

Plus, there’s that bit of weirdness where he calls his wife “mother,” and won’t dine alone with women or attend events with alcohol unless she’s present.

The irony of these positions, which he insists are in defense of families, is that he is actively undermining them.

For starters, access to reproductive health care, which gives families control over if and when they have children, increases economic security. That makes families less likely to undergo conflict. On the flip side, laws that restrict access to abortion actively endanger families’ financial security. Generally, the birth of a child is a big expense—and if its’s unplanned or mistimed, it’s more likely to cause an economic shock or plunge a family into poverty. Financial stress, in turn, can lead to divorce or relationship dissolution as well as domestic violence.

And all those anti-LGBT policies? LGBT people have families, too—and when Pence denies them the right to get married or use the bathroom, he denies them the humanity that he grants families that look more like his own: “Christian, conservative, and Republican—in that order.” And when he opposes legislation that prohibits discrimination against LGBT workers, like he did in 2007 and again in 2015, he also jeopardizes their families’ economic security.

Even Pence’s intense devotion to his wife, which the internet mostly wrote off as eccentric codependency, works to undermine families. When he refuses to eat dinner or attend events with female staffers––allegedly to resist temptation from other women and to uphold the sanctity of his marriage––he denies them a professional opportunity that he makes available to men. One-on-one time with managers can lead to professional capital that makes salaries or promotions possible. Pence’s inability to treat women as professional counterparts, rather than objects of sexual temptation, excludes them from those opportunities for job growth. That brings us back to women’s financial security, and—once again—to their families.

Pence’s intense devotion to “traditional family values,” isn’t wholesome, or pious, or even just weird. It’s radical and dangerous. And less than 100 days into his vice presidency, we haven’t even scratched the surface.

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Culture

New Survey Says Women Are Leading the Resistance, Because Of Course They Are

Last week, the Internet gathered, in delight and shock, to discuss two apparently brand-new revelations: First, contrary to popular supposition, women do not magically evaporate from the public sphere upon entering their forties. Secondly, some of the poor old dears actually do activism.

In fact, as per a poll commissioned by progressive advocacy site Daily Action, middle-aged women are doing nearly all the activism these days. The company, which texts daily alerts reminding users to contact Congressional representatives, says that the members who responded to the poll were 86% female — and, significantly, over 60% were older than age 46. Most had attended a Women’s March, and the vast majority (77%) described themselves as “very likely” to publicly protest Donald Trump’s administration and policies in the near future.

Much of the discussion around this report, particularly from male commentators, was politely baffled. Jeff Stein of Vox called the data “fascinating,” and marveled that “angry young white men may be blowing up your social media, but middle-aged women/moms [are] doing the real grunt work.” Shane Savitsky of Axios informed his followers that “your mom might be playing a huge part in the anti-Trump movement.” (I don’t know about you, Shane, but my mom also knows how to use Twitter. Might want to re-think those pronouns.) This reaction, though it was well intentioned, was grating. This data simply should not shock us. The dynamic Stein describes—men writing Twitter essays and women making phone calls, men as the faces of the movement and women as its faceless foot soldiers—is exactly how things have worked for a very long time.

Of course, this is self-reported data from one platform, and doesn’t necessarily represent the totality of progressive activism.  But it’s worth noting, especially since women are sometimes dinged for their unwillingness to participate in “politics”—usually construed to mean running for office. That accusation rests on a very specific idea of political engagement. Rejigger your definitions, and the picture changes considerably.

By a variety of political metrics, women are doing more of the work. Women register to vote more often than men, and are more likely to vote once they’ve registered. Women are more likely to do volunteer work. Women make the vast majority of charitable donations; in fact, as per Debra Mesch of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, “women give more than their male peers at virtually all income levels, even though women in general earn less.” At the local level, women are far more likely than men to attend religious services and to join religious groups—which Pew Research tells us is an indicator of civic engagement—and slightly more likely to be involved in neighborhood associations. Finally, and most predictably: As of 2009, 90% of all PTA members were female.

We see “leadership” qualities in the guy doing all the talking, not the girl doing all the work.

This is not glamorous stuff. It is, in fact, mom stuff; making sure that children are schooled and people are fed, that the church fundraiser goes off well and the new mayor is more competent, that the park gets a new fence, that the Goodwill gets the old clothes, and that the daily wheel of life more or less rolls on, in all its boring glory. Which is to say, we assign women the work of community; all the daily, unremarkable social and political engagement that keeps groups of people bound together as a coherent whole, and thereby makes civic life possible. Women are expected to do all this for the same reason that they’re still expected to do the lion’s share of parenting, or to take care of aging relatives, or to do most of the chores; because they’re “just better at it,” because no-one else wants to do it, because the willingness to provide this labor, for free, is some essential part of how we construe being feminine.

And, because it is feminine, it is dismissed. None of this work is what we see as “leadership,” and none of these women, especially as they age, fit our images of “leaders.” Barricade-mounting and enraged-speech-giving and Nazi-punching and office-holding — all the positions we actually associate with “politics”—are assumed to be beyond them. Instead, middle-aged women are stereotyped as terminally bland soccer moms, oversharing mommybloggers and prudish neighborhood busybodies, harried non-entities who “try too hard to be cool” and whose idea of fun is “always having snacks on the counter.” Throughout the 2016 election, the media made a constant fuss about their irrelevance and their political ineptitude when compared to their supposedly more progressive millennial daughters.

This is where the benign, patronizing shock around the poll numbers comes in. How could meek little Barb or Pam, or anyone else afflicted by God with such terminal lack of flavor, turn out to be the face of anti-fascist resistance in America?

Again: She always has been.

It would be more shocking if the majority of women involved in the anti-Trump protests actually fit the “white soccer mom” stereotype. That is, at least in part, because it would be shocking if most of them were white; though the Daily Action survey doesn’t segment its data by race, we know that only 4% of black women voted for Donald Trump, whereas 52% of white women did. Plus, older women vote more than younger women, and they are more likely to have money to donate or children to tie them to a community.

But, most importantly, time is not static. “Old lady” stereotypes aside, today’s moms are likely to have more direct experience of radical activism than their daughters. A 64-year-old woman, in 2017, has a birth date of 1953. She has directly witnessed—or actively participated in—both the mid-century civil rights movement and feminism’s second wave. She is more likely to identify as feminist than any other age group, and she is more likely to vote for political candidates based on their gender politics. She is also the most likely to advocate for women’s rights by taking measures such as—surprise!—calling or writing her representatives.

This isn’t to slight younger women; they come in a very close second in the Most Feminist Generation sweepstakes. It’s simply to demonstrate how easily women’s political work can be ignored or obscured, hidden away by our presumptions about what—and who—qualifies as an “activist.” Indeed, even as the media whipped up the catfight of the century between millennial feminists and their second-wave mothers, the same pattern of gendered labor was repeating itself: In one 2013 survey, women under 30 were already volunteering more, donating more, voting more, and joining community groups more than their male peers. In fact, young women were outstripping men on every measure of “civic participation” but one: “Talking about politics with friends and family frequently.” That one, the boys had covered.

This is exactly the sort of granular, incremental, everyday work that women are socialized to take on themselves.

Unfortunately, we happen to live in a society that perceives “leadership” qualities in the guy doing all the talking, not the girl doing all the work. We applaud the man giving the speech, not the woman making sure there are enough chairs for everyone in the audience; the dude who pens a single scathing Medium essay, not the woman showing up every night to phone bank; the charismatic male candidate, not his female campaign manager.

Making a daily phone call to one’s representative—taking ten minutes out of a lunch break to be one of twelve people on hold, staying appropriately polite for a 30-second conversation about voting against Betsy DeVos or Syrian intervention or whatever is on the menu today—is exactly the sort of granular, incremental, everyday work that women are socialized to take on themselves. It’s also one of the more immediately effective forms of protest out there. In the midst of the crisis that is the Trump administration, it should not be surprising that women would, once again, step in and do the pragmatic, everyday work of keeping their communities safe. What is surprising is that we still don’t expect them to do it — or that we simply didn’t notice them doing it in the background all this time.

If we knew how to value those women, to notice and spotlight all the unheeded background work that keeps resistance running, we might have a very different idea of “leadership” — and a very different picture of who actually runs (and saves) the world.

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