John McWhorter on James Patterson and Some Odd Numbers on Black Childhood Poverty
I’m kinda in the home stretch for the fact checking on my book – we’ve revised and rewritten and rechecked so many times I’m ready to plotz, but even so, I’m willing to bet some mistakes will creep in. Its inevitable in a book as data driven as this one. But I don’t like mistakes, so I recheck again…
Which brings me to this review of James Patterson’s new book by John McWhorter in the New Republic. The point of the book seems to be that welfare was bad for Black families. The review cites some interesting, er, facts, which presumably come from the book being reviewed.
For instance, after a few paragraphs about how welfare destroyed the Black American family, we’re told this:
As such, the refashioning of AFDC in 1996 into a five-year program with required job training was the most important event in black American history between the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the election of Barack Obama. In that light, Patterson is too saturnine about the Moynihan’s report’s legacy. By 2004 the welfare rolls had gone down by two-thirds, and contrary to fears that people off the rolls would starve or languish in squalor (Moynihan was among those who thought they would), black childhood poverty went down to 30 percent from 41 percent, and ex-recipients have regularly reported greater self-esteem and are thankful for the new regime.
Well, if the 1996 refashioning yada yada yada “was the most important event in black American history between the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the election of Barack Obama,” its something worth a look. Since I don’t have a clue where to find data on self-esteem and thankfulness, let’s have us a look at the bit about how, by 2004, “black childhood poverty went down to 30 percent from 41 percent.” We can check out data on Black childhood poverty from this table at the Census.
First, an aside – as of 2002, the Census started differentiating between two definitions of “Black” which is self-evident from the key to the graph above. Other things evident from the graph…. if something in ’96 caused a big drop in Black childhood poverty, it was powerful enough for its effect to work its way back in time all the way to ’93, which is the year Black childhood poverty began its decline. That drop did reach a bottom of 30.2%, but in 2001, not in 2004. In fact, unfortunately, the rate of Black children in poverty rose since then. And when the real facts are placed on a simple graph, its extremely difficult for a rational person to reach so and so’s conclusion.
Now, if this seems like someone was trying to bamboozle, there’s all sorts of “facts” like this in the review. Perhaps the one that is most frighteningly wrong is this one:
That momentous factor is this: After the 1960s, the percentage of black children with one parent exploded from a quarter to—by the 1990s—nearly three-fourths, vastly out of step with the availability of work, the prevalence of racism, or equivalent single-parentage figures for any other race.
Now, I should graph this, but I’m in kinda a hurry, so I’ll just let you know… data on the percentage of Black children’s living arrangements can be found at yet another table at the Census. One of the columns in that table gives you the total number of Black children, and another gives you the total number of Black children living with one parent. Using some of that fancy learnin’, I divide one column by the other and discover that….
1. 54.7% of Black children lived with a single parent in 1990.
2. That rate peaked (for the 90s) in ’96, at 57.4%, and then dropped to 53.3% in 2000.
Now, the ’96 peak might help make Patterson’s point… but if he made that point, its not in the review. (Of course, ignoring the ludicrous “three quarters” number isn’t an outright invention, giving Patterson the benefit of the doubt, what we would conclude is that he might be right about Black children living with one parent, but clearly not about Black children in poverty.)
Anyway, if McWhorter’s review is remotely accurate, call this an “unrecommendation” for Patterson’s book. And a suggestion to McWhorter – if the book cites facts that seem obviously false, check those facts. Because if the key points in a book are ludicrously inaccurate, that’s a big problem that should be mentioned in a book review. And agreeing with stuff that is just plain wrong makes no sense at all.