To the Editor:
“About one-fifth of all American families . . . live on incomes below the so-called federal poverty line,” John Thompson states [“The Big Money,” February], basing himself on Herbert Gans in the New York Times Magazine—unfortunately a source no better than Ferdinand Lundberg whom Thompson also takes seriously. The New York Times itself reported in its news column (8/9/68) some months before publishing the Gans piece that 5.3 million families out of a total of 49.8 million were below Thompson’s poverty line in 1967. That makes 11 per cent or one-ninth—not one-fifth as Thompson, misled by Gans, writes. (The editors of the Times Magazine and Mr. Gans may be right in not believing what they read in the Times, but this news column quoted directly from a government release.) Thompson’s essay is a farrago of maldigested data, misinterpretation, and fantasy. Thus he ignores the investment function of inequality, suggests that poverty has not been declining (actually: 1/5 of all families in 1962; 1/6 in 1966; 1/9 in 1967 were below the poverty line—a very steep decline), etc. Was it meant to be a review of fiction by more fiction—or did it just turn out that way?
Ernest van den Haag
New York City
Mr. Thompson writes:
At last, to be officially enrolled among the good guys! I’m happier to get an attack from Ernest van den Haag than I would be to get a Silver Buffalo from the Boy Scouts of America.
As for numbers, Mr. van den Haag has his government sources and I have mine. My numbers are dated March 1968, and come from the Social Science Bulletin, United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Social Security Administration, in an article called “The Shape of Poverty in 1966,” by Mollie Orshansky, of the Office of Research and Statistics. These are not numbers for 1967 or 1968, and so I will concede these years to Mr. van den Haag’s inspiration. But the report states that 17.7 per cent of all house-holds had incomes below the Social Security Administration poverty level. Had I known these exact numbers at the time, I might have written “nearly one-fifth” rather than “about one-fifth,” with room for a quibble over the alleged census shortage in reporting poor blacks. Another 7.8 per cent of households were below the “low-income level.” Mollie Orshansky also reports that there has indeed been a positive decline in poverty; about this, I had said, speaking of the various sets of numbers I knew of, “It is hard to tell whether or not this means that things have improved.” Mollie Orshansky goes on to say that the inequality of incomes, which was what I was talking about, has in fact increased: “Between 1959 and 1966 both the income received by consumers and the prices of what they bought continued to climb but income went up faster. Inevitably, then, the poverty thresholds, adjusted only for price changes, were farther below general levels of income at the end of the period than at the outset. . . . The average income of four-person families had increased by 37 per cent but the poverty line by only 9 per cent, or one-fourth as much.”
Given the variable bases (the report I cite claims 61 million “households” and Mr. van den Haag speaks of 49.8 million “families”) and the uncertain extrapolation necessary to statistics, these things can never be beyond question; and besides there is something inherently repulsive about playing with numbers that represent human misery.
But to return to our little spat, Mr. van den Haag is completely correct about one thing. I have never given a moment’s thought to “the investment function of inequality.” I take his word for it that inequality has such a function, and I’ll bet it’s a big one too. . . .