Accuracy in Media

In a new piece, HuffPost reports that the failure to extend the child tax credit has led to an increase in child poverty. By the official measures, this is not true — child poverty hasn’t been changed at all by the child tax credit.

NPR makes the same mistake. The truth is that absolutely nothing that happens through the tax system changes child poverty by that official measure. 

Now, it’s true, the paper they are both relying upon, from Columbia’s Center on Poverty, does say that child poverty has increased as a result of the end of the increased child tax credit. But that’s because they’re not using the official measure. They do say they’re not using it but you’d have to be switched on to the differences – you know, like a journalist writing about poverty might be – to understand and explain it. Neither HuffPost nor NPR does. 

The dirty secret about the Official Poverty Measure – that’s the one we see that says “13.4% of Americans are living in poverty” – is that it doesn’t include most of the things we do to try to alleviate poverty. The effects of the EITC, rent subsidies, food stamps (officially, SNAP) and anything at all that happens through the tax system are not included in the calculation. The effect of this is that if we change the child tax credit – which was done last year – then we change the number of people in poverty by this official measure by not one single person, or child of course. 

What is being used by Columbia is the Supplemental Poverty Measure. Which they say, even if they don’t make it wholly obvious. But this is an entirely different number, it’s not the one we’re all used to in the slightest. It’s substantially higher than the official number for example. In many other ways, it’s actually better as well. And, yet, there’s either a loss of accuracy in the media here or a little three-card monte.

The child tax credit changed the number in poverty by a measure that none of us really know about. It didn’t change the number we all recognize. So, if you’re going to say that the child tax credit changed the number in poverty then, really, you should be detailing that it’s not the number that we all know about. 

HuffPost is now part of BuzzFeed and gains some 66 million visits a month. NPR gets 82 million and, of course, has a certain influence on the radio waves. They are, respectively, the No. 28 and No. 3 online news outlets in the U.S. They should do better than this. 

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