Indiana borough poverty and ‘statistical porn’

A Jan. 18 Harrisburg news story that reported Indiana borough, Pa., had the state’s highest poverty rate among 35 towns. (Click to enlarge.)

By Logan Hullinger

INDIANA – The headline in the Jan. 18 Harrisburg newspaper read “The 35 Poorest Towns in Pennsylvania.” And the poorest of them all, according to the Jan. 18 PennLive story?

Indiana borough. That is, if one draws conclusions from skewed statistics.

Citing U.S. Census Bureau data, the staff-written news story reported the borough’s 2016 population was 13,975, the number of people living in poverty was 6,009, with a resulting poverty rate of 43 percent.

The math is right. But the conclusions drawn from the data are wrong.

Nevertheless, the article has been shared more than 11,000 times and has been a hot topic among the respective local communities on social media.

Indiana Borough Council President Peter Broad and state Rep. Dave L. Reed, R-Indiana, reacted by criticizing the study’s inclusion of Indiana University of Pennsylvania students in the census data. That skewed the municipal poverty rate skyward, they said.

The elected officials cited no numbers, and neither did the Census Bureau website.

But a Census statistician did excavate the numbers from an unpublished 2016 table, and bureau spokesman Daniel D. Velez released it in an email on Monday.

A fragment of a U.S. Census Bureau chart showing U.S. college towns above populations 10,000 with statistically significant differences in poverty rates adjusted for off-campus college students: 2012-2016. Indiana borough, Pa., is one of them. (Click to enlarge.)

The document lists 231 U.S. college towns with populations of 10,000 or more. It reports that Indiana borough’s 2016 population included 4,108 off-campus college students, or 29 percent of its total population.

By subtracting the college students from the total number of impoverished borough residents published by PennLive, the number of people in poverty drops to 1,901, for a poverty rate of 13.3 percent — nearly 30 percentage points lower than the figure reported in the Jan. 18 news story. (The margin of error is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points, the Census Bureau table reported.)

The revised poverty rate still places Indiana borough above the statewide average poverty rate of 12.9 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

Three other towns that host campuses in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education also were listed in the PennLive report — Lock Haven University ranked second, right behind Indiana borough; Clarion University ranked third; and Bloomsburg University ranked 27th.

Bloomsburg was included in the unpublished Census Bureau table. The PennLive report gave the town a poverty rate of 23.6 percent. After adjusting for off-campus student residents, Bloomsburg’s poverty rate drops to 12.9 percent, the statewide average, with a margin of error of 3.2 percent.

“It would be reasonable to assume” that the same differences in poverty rates would be found in any given college town, Census Bureau spokesman Velez said in a Jan. 29 phone interview.

 

ANNUAL INCOME that defines poverty for individuals is currently $12,140, a figure that increases as the number of household members increases.

Poverty rates are used by the federal government to determine eligibility for government subsidies and assistance. The programs include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the federal food stamp program), the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare) and Medicaid.

The PennLive reporter who wrote the Jan. 18 article did not respond to a Tuesday email seeking comment.

 

WILLARD W. RADELL, an IUP economics professor, described the PennLive article as “statistical pornography” in a Jan. 24 email.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania economics professor Willard W. Radell.

“The poverty measure PennLive is using counts student incomes,” he wrote. “Thus, the fact that Indiana contains the second largest state-owned university in the state is the reason we are rated the ‘poorest.’”

Radell acknowledged “real poverty and hunger in Indiana.” But he warned against drawing “any reasonable conclusions” from the PennLive report.
.
Logan R. Hullinger, a senior journalism major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a staff reporter for The HawkEye, is from Clarion. He may be contacted at L.R.Hullinger@iup.edu

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s