To Have or Have Not? Charles Blow Misreads the Question

December 17, 2011   ·   2 Comments

Source: NYTX

Charles Blow

By Marie Burns:

Every week, Charles Blow looks at some sociological, political or economic statistics, creates some charts and graphs associated with those statistics, interprets the statistics and shares his findings and insights in a New York Times column. As far as I can tell, that’s his job. The Times employs a brilliant statistician – Nate Silver – but Silver does not have a regular column that appears in the print edition of the paper. Blow does. This week, he didn’t have time to write it. Maybe he was busy buying holiday gifts for the kids. What we readers got was a pre-winter snow job that misinterprets poll results in a way that helps Republican politicians and attempts to make Americans look stupider than we are.

In his column, Blow reports,

A Gallup poll released on Thursday found that, after rising rather steadily for the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who said that the country is divided into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ took the largest drop since the question was asked…. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans still see themselves as the haves, while only about a third see themselves as the have-nots.

Blow doesn’t bother to link the reader to the original Gallup report on their poll. It’s here. He adds, “Yet another Gallup report issued Friday [which Blow does link] found that most Americans now say that the fact that some people in the U.S. are rich and others are poor does not represent a problem but is an acceptable part of our economic system.” Here, Blow doesn’t give us the whole study. The other part of the study, which you won’t find via Blow’s link, shows that “70% say it is important for the government to increase equality of opportunity, and 82% say it is important for the government to grow and expand the economy.” (The findings are more complicated than that; self-identified Democrats are much more in favor of the government’s taking steps to reduce income inequality than are Republicans and independents.) But bear in mind, asking Americans if they think the government should mitigate inequality is a different question from asking whether or not they see income inequality as “a problem.”

Blow does not create any new charts; he copies Gallup’s. (Looks as if he changed the colors on the line graphs.) What Blow does next is cite a couple of reports that demonstrate what we all know – that income inequality is growing in the U.S., not between the haves and have-nots, but between the ultra-rich and everyone else.

Blow is supposed to look beneath the numbers, not just copy someone else’s work. But copy he does. Sometimes that doesn’t matter because the poll results others obtained are meaningful in themselves. This time Blow’s cut-and-paste job does matter because the meaning of the poll results may not be evident to the reader, especially after Blow cites those other statistics to distort the implications of the Gallup polls. Blow’s leap of stats, as we shall see, sets up an egregiously false equivalency. But that doesn’t stop blow. He flat-out tells us that what the distortions imply is true: Americans are “delusional” and “in denial” about rising income inequality.

The Gallup organization is not very concerned about Americans’ view of income and wealth inequality. Looking back at a year of their economic polling, Gallup repeatedly asked questions about “the economy” and “unemployment,” but none about wealth or income inequality. Not since 2008 has Gallup even asked Americans about their perceptions of “haves and have-nots,” which, as we’ll see, is a different matter anyway.

One reason Gallup may have little concern about American income and wealth inequality: inequality is more a concern of liberals than of conservatives, and Gallup management is largely conservative. As this Campaign Money site shows, Gallup CEO Jim Clifton was a Herman Cain supporter back in 2003, when Herman Cain was at least as much into blaming the poor for income inequality as he was the day in 2011 when he said, “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.” Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer reported in 2004 that he (Henwood) telephoned “a former Gallup researcher…, who opened the conversation by saying [of Gallup executives] ‘They’re all Republicans!’ Well, not all, he clarified – just most of the senior people, like editor-in-chief Frank Newport and senior editor Lydia Saad. (An exception is Democrat David Moore, a senior analyst.)” David Moore doesn’t work for Gallup any more.

This is not to suggest that Gallup can’t or won’t do accurate polling. But it does tell us they may have an incentive to do polling that favors a Republican, or right-leaning, point of view. So it was that Gallup posed this question that has unduly alarmed and confounded Charles Blow:

Some people think of American society as divided into two groups – the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ while others think it’s incorrect to think of Americans that way. Do you, yourself, think of America as divided into haves and have-nots, or don’t you think of America that way?

You don’t have to be a professional statistician to see that this question is only peripherally related to income inequality. (Remember, Blow compares the Gallup poll results to actual income inequality figures as the basis for his charge that Americans are “delusional.”)

First, there’s a difference between income inequality and wealth inequality. Blow writes about income inequality. If the have/have-not question addresses inequality, it addresses wealth inequality – what you have – as opposed to income inequality – your current paycheck. So the “haves” have stuff – tangibles like homes, cars, boats, plus intangibles – investments and money in the bank. The have-nots have nothing.

It is true that – at least before the Occupy movement publicized the extent of wealth inequality – many Americans didn’t realize how iniquitous the American economy had become. As the graph at the top of page 11 of this study (pdf) by Profs. Michael Norton and Dan Ariely shows, earlier this year Americans grossly underestimated wealth inequality. (In a perfect world, they thought America’s wealth distribution should be a lot more like the distribution that exists in that subversive socialist country Sweden.)

This past summer, a couple of Heritage Foundation hacks produced a study designed to contribute to Americans’ ignorance of the nation’s degree of wealth inequality. The study naturally got favorable publicity on Fox “News.” Here’s Stuart Varney, the guest host on “Your World with Neil Cavuto,” introducing Heritage Foundation senior research hack Robert Rector on July 19:

A new report showing poor families in the United States are not what they used to be. Now, many poor families have homes with cable TV, cell phones, computers, you name it — much, much, more…. My next guest is digging up all of this stuff. Robert Rector is with the Heritage Foundation.

Robert, I’m just going to give our viewers a quick run-through of what items poor families in America have. Ninety-nine percent of them have a refrigerator. Eighty-one percent have a microwave. Seventy-eight percent have air conditioning. Sixty-three percent have cable TV. Fifty-four percent have cell phones. Forty-eight percent have a coffee maker — I’m not surprised, they’re only about 10 bucks. Thirty-eight percent have a computer. Thirty-two percent have more than two TVs. Twenty-five percent have a dishwasher.

Shocking! Stephen Colbert had a field day with the Heritage study. His teevee persona was outraged that the nation’s poor were living with luxuries like refrigeration and microwaves: “A refrigerator and a microwave? They can preserveand heat food? Ooh la la! I guess the poor are too good for mold and trichinosis.”

If they didn’t learn it from Colbert, I think most Americans already knew that poor people do have stuff. Maybe the poor bought their things second-hand, maybe they bought them with government assistance, maybe their coffeemaker cost “only about 10 bucks.” But happily, poor Americans have many of the basic necessities. In that respect, even the poor, not to mention all of the middle class, are “haves.” So if you ask Americans to divide the country into haves and have-nots, most probably are not dividing the country into rich versus poor. Rather, they are dividing it into most-of-us versus the homeless and destitute. No wonder six in ten identified themselves as “haves.” Young adults who are living with their parents because they can’t find good jobs probably don’t consider themselves among the “haves,” and some respondents like interpreted the Gallup question to be about income inequality. But six in ten of those polled acknowledge that theyhave stuff. Because they do. Even if it’s mortgaged or purchased on credit.

Moreover, if you look closely – which Blow didn’t – you’ll see that the Gallup question is loaded. Here it is again:

Some people think of American society as divided into two groups – the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ while others think it’s incorrect to think of Americans that way. Do you, yourself, think of America as divided into haves and have-nots, or don’t you think of America that way?

The question asks the respondent whether or not he divides Americans into two classes of people. The way the final part of the question is framed tells the subject the answer the pollster is looking for. The pollster wants to know (1) if you’re one of those snobs who divides Americans into classes of people based on how much fancy stuff they own, or (1) if you’re a nice patriotic egalitarian who “doesn’t think of America that way.” As I said, a loaded question with the pollster prompting the respondent to give the preferred answer.

This wasn’t the only loaded question Blow cited without telling us the question was loaded. In the related study, a portion of which Blow linked, the Gallup poll question was,

Do you think that the fact that some people in the United States are rich and others are poor – [ROTATED: represents a problem that needs to be fixed (or) is an acceptable part of our economic system]?

Here, Gallup pretends to make the question “fair” by rotating the choices. But the premise itself is ridiculous. Almost no Americans believe in absolute income equality. We believe that different levels of ability and effort should receive different rewards. As a result, we expect some hard-working, creative people to get rich, and some low-skilled slackers to garner low incomes. So “the fact that some people in the U.S. are poor and some are rich” is not an intrinsic problem in the eyes of Americans. Nor should it be. It’s the level of rich and poor – the difference in the incomes of the very rich and the working poor that is the problem – not wealth and poverty per se. So the question is deceptive and the response predictable. The poll results do not mean that Americans don’t care about unfair or outrageous income inequality.

Gallup isn’t unique in its failure to ask Americans non-loaded questions about how they feel about growing income and wealth inequality. As sociologist Leslie McCall wrote in a March 2011 New York TimesRoom for Debate” (online only) post,

First, polls rarely ask specifically about income inequality. They ask instead about government redistributive polices, such as taxes and welfare, which are not always popular. From this information, we erroneously assume that Americans don’t care about inequality…. Second, surveys on inequality that do exist are not well known. For instance, since at least the late 1980s, a majority of Americans have agreed with the statement that income differences in the U.S. are too large. Similarly, 70 percent or more have said for decades that executives are overpaid… Third…, politicians and the media do not consistently engage Americans on the issue.

Here’s the study (pdf) by Profs. McCall and Lane Kenworthy that backs up the claims McCall made in her New York Timespost. I’d say Charles Blow never read either McCall’s post or the academic study on which she based it. It was his job to do so.

Finally, let’s look at a recent poll that actually does ask Americans how they feel about income inequality as opposed to – something else. Bernie Becker of The Hill, in an October 31 report, writes, “Two-thirds of likely voters say the American middle class is shrinking, and 55 percent believe income inequality has become a big problem for the country, according to this week’s The Hill Poll.”

Charles Blow had an obligation to tell his readers that the Gallup polls he cited did not show that Americans don’t care about rising inequality. That would have been a service to readers who might have read the polls and misinterpreted them. Instead, Blow perpetuated the myth that Gallup – and Republicans – want Democratic politicians to believe: that American voters don’t care about income inequality, so populist rhetoric will not win elections. The Hill poll strongly suggests Americans are troubled by growing income inequality. Even the Gallup poll that Blow hid shows that most Democrats are concerned about inequality and most Americans of all political persuasions want the government to increase equality of opportunity.

By misrepresenting the Gallup findings, Blow unfairly dismisses Americans as “delusional deniers” and tries to pull the wool over the eyes of politicians most inclined to help the victims of income and wealth inequality. Blow’s column is sloppy, lazy, derogatory, deceptive, ultimately inaccurate, and wholly unworthy of a serious newspaper.

Marie Burns blogs at
and until recently was a popular commenter on New York Times op-ed columns.


Readers Comments (2)

  1. alphonsegaston says:

    Woof–when I read the piece last night I was suspicious–years ago we used How to Lie with Statistics as a text in university classes in logic and argument. Blow’s essay is a perfect example of simple-minded (or, as you suggest, absent-minded) analysis. My late husband, a mathematician, never took any stock in polls, anyway, no matter how honestly set up.

    Our cultural faith in polls lays a dead hand on our collective intelligence. Much of that is due to the prevalence of social “science” in our colleges and universities. “Researchers” purchase data collected by companies set up to service the academic industry, then they interpret the material so as to suit their “conclusions.” I have sat through any number of fantastic presentations of such research; my favorite “proved” that firefighters need not be physically capable of firefighting if their test scores are high enough.

    Thanks, Marie, for deconstructing this piece.

  2. Nobull says:

    Insightful, cogent and extremely thorough. Your point that citizens of the USA don’t want everyone to have the same “things” points out the dishonest character of the constant Republican-sponsored “socialist” preemptive attack rants aimed at progressives with plans to get the economy going again.
    Most poor and working individuals normally just want a similar -not equal- opportunity to participate in this service heavy, consumer economy, then to get rewarded based on the value of their efforts, as you note, and share the wealth that their effort creates. Fairly share, not equally share. Citizens here understand that some people are born with advantages and we accept and tolerate those differences in our pluralistic society.
    The Republican attack dogs deliberately misstate the important questions, and as you note, this survey demonstrates how this skews the relevance of the topic. They also dumb down the range of possible answers into a meaningless black/white dichotomy, finally producing a pompous hoopla of a conclusion that no one cares about or thinks important.
    Lawyers call this deliberate strategy “red-herrings” and “smokescreens”. You have explained it well. Most of us get it but not Mr. Blow.
    So my only criticism with the discussion is using the word “hacks” to describe these wrong-wing think tank bloviators. Charles Dickens was my model hack-a writer paid by the word who worked incessantly, a bit of a dilletante, maybe commenting on some things based more on faith than reason, but a sincere, well-intentioned writer with a social and political ax to grind.
    Those who work for the Heritage Foundation and other such organizations do not even pretend good will, rational inquiry, open discussion or journalistic integrity. If they did, they’d be out the door with the imprint of a jackboot on their derrieres.
    No, they are producing propaganda with a definite political agenda: “confuse and deceive the rabble”. Truth be damned, but throw in some blabbering points our wrong-wing mouthpieces can keep repeating until many listeners are just too numb to care and a few others too brainwashed to stop cheering mindlessly. And if someone asks a meaningful question, change the subject, offer to get back to the questioner after speaking to spin-doctors or throw a hissy-fit.
    In other words, promulgate a vicious, anti-democratic, deliberately dishonest agenda that’s hurting the USA every day. Just because a person might be a hack commenter doesn’t mean they would stoop that low. See, now I’m almost defending Charles Blow.



Reload Image

More in CHARLES BLOW, REALITYCHEX (204 of 232 articles)
Maureen Dowd