Editorial: Statistics alone don't support the Moral Mondays arguments

Aug. 23, 2013 @ 01:27 AM

The effects of poverty are devastating, and it’s understandable that those who work with and advocate for the poor feel the need to drive home the depths of the desperation they see every day.

A recent Charlotte Observer editorial, in connection to plans for a “Moral Monday” protest in Charlotte, cited some “eye-opening statistics” put out recently by the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity to make the case that poverty issues should be a priority even in “one of this state’s wealthiest regions.”

We don’t doubt the need.

But we maintain that sloppy thinking and bad statistics undermine any argument, and that’s the case here.

The Observer notes that the center’s research says Charlotte is one of five urban areas with “the most intense, deep poverty” in North Carolina. The other four are Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem.

Hmm.

If you asked anyone you pass on the street, at work or out shopping to name the top five urban areas in the state, they probably would be Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem. Cary, a booming bedroom community for the Raleigh area, breaks into the top five in population, but it has nothing you would recognize as a downtown since it’s mostly new development, looking like nothing more than a giant conglomeration of suburbs, so it wouldn’t count, to most observers passing through, as urban.

In other words, the five most concentrated areas of poverty in the state are in the five most concentrated populations in the state. That doesn’t necessarily tell us anything.

The Observer also notes that the center says that two-thirds of the state’s concentrated poverty U.S. census tracts are in urban areas rather than rural areas.

Well … perhaps that’s because part of what makes a place rural is that there is not much concentration of humans there. You can’t have concentrations of poor people without first having concentrations of people.

One wonders why the Observer editorial writer felt the need to make the case that there are real, live poor people in the Charlotte area. Is there anyone out there, even in the plastic, big-box world of sprawl and overfertilized lawns that makes up wealthy, suburban Charlotte, who does not connect the idea of any big city with swaths of urban blight, poverty, crime, drug use and despair? New York City might be the wealthiest city in the world, but no one would argue that its residents never think about the city’s level of poverty.

In fact, the Observer editorial misses entirely what the focus of its own argument should be. It seems to cite the poverty statistics as though those alone are clear evidence that the message of the Moral Monday protesters, who maintain that the Republican legislature has passed laws that will harm the poor, should resonate in Charlotte.

That is not the case at all. Republicans would not argue that poverty does not exist, whether in Charlotte or in the reliably Republican-voting, lower-income counties of western North Carolina such as Caldwell. They would argue, rather, that the policies advocated by the Moral Monday protesters do not work to solve the problem, and that the laws passed by the General Assembly this year at the least will not harm the poor and at best will help far more than past policies did.

Statistics without context are useless, and even with context they do not constitute an argument.