Statistics Like A Bikini

Posted: January 3, 2012 in america, controversy, iowa, politics, race
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I don’t have any strong affinities for Rick Santorum.  For me, the jury’s still out on the best Republican candidate.  But, regardless of the candidate, what I can’t stand are ridiculous accusations of racism and/or discrimination whenever someone (usually a conservative) so much as mentions race.   And that’s just what happened recently in response to a comment Santorum made while campaigning in Iowa.

NPR reports:

At a campaign stop over the weekend, Santorum was asked about foreign influence on the U.S., but the former Pennsylvania senator went on a tangent about entitlement programs and appeared to tell a mostly white crowd that he did not want to “make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.”

Now, of course, you have to dig a little deeper than NPR’s reporting if you want to get to the bottom of Santorum’s comment (although NPR certainly handled it better than the folks at The Raw Story, who misleadingly titled their article, “Santorum tells Iowans: ‘I don’t want to make black people’s lives better’“).

Here is Santorum’s comment in its full context (video):

It just keeps expanding — I was in Indianola a few months ago and I was talking to someone who works in the department of public welfare here, and she told me that the state of Iowa is going to get fined if they don’t sign up more people under the Medicaid program.  They’re just pushing harder and harder to get more and more of you dependent upon them so they can get your vote. That’s what the bottom line is.  I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.  I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn their money and provide for themselves and their families, and the best way to do that is to get the manufacturing sector of the economy rolling again.

The NPR article was quick to cite the fact that “the majority of welfare recipients are not black.”

But, as every informed voter would do well to remember, statistics are tricky.  Aaron Levenstein was right: “Statistics are like a bikini.  What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”

For example, while it is indeed true that, with regard to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, African Americans only account for 22% of total food stamp recipients (as opposed to 34% for whites), that doesn’t necessarily mean that Santorum’s comment was completely off-base.  Indeed, while African Americans do not constitute a majority in this regard, the percentage of people who receive food stamps is much higher among the African American population (28%) then it is among any other race, whites in particular (8%).

So yes, white people do account for the largest percentage of welfare payments each month.  But that’s largely due to the fact that they make up the largest segment of the population (75% white compared to 14% black)!  The percentage of welfare recipients within each race tells a very different story.

In citing these statistics, I’m not attempting to subtly imply anything about “black people” or “white people.”  And I’m also not overlooking the many important factors that undoubtedly contribute to this disparity.  Those who often level charges of racism seem to assume that the citation of such statistics (whether formally or informally) necessarily implies some kind of generalized judgment (i.e. “White people work hard” or “Black people are lazy”).  But that’s just plain wrong.

Remember, I don’t have any special affinity for Santorum.  I’m actually quite ambivalent about the guy.  I also don’t have any problem with those (i.e. liberals) who disagree with Santorum’s opinion regarding the effectiveness of government sponsored entitlement programs.  However, to level a charge of racism (or something like it) is extremely disingenuous and unhelpful.  With poverty and unemployment levels much higher among African Americans than any other segment of the population, it seems that what the African American community needs is someone who wants exactly what Santorum wants: a plan to create opportunities for people to go out and earn money so they can provide for their families.

To say that is not to become a racist.  Rather, it is simply to acknowledge the way things are, which is the first step to figuring out how to make things better.

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