When Good News Trumps Bad News - And Vice Versa

It was somehow fitting that the Census Bureau’s latest poverty numbers came out yesterday. After all, on the front page we were provided with a pretty extreme illustration of what it means to be poor in this country: In New Orleans, those living below the poverty were also those disproportionately disappearing below the water line.

What the Census Bureau had to say was this: For the fourth consecutive year, the number of people living below the poverty line grew, this time from 12.5 percent to 12.7 percent of the populace, an increase of 1.1 million people. Meantime, the number of people without health insurance rose from 45 million to 45.8 million.

Coincidentally, the Commerce Department today released its economic numbers for the second quarter of the year, which showed a 3.3 percent increase in gross domestic product — a bit below expectations, but still what economists would call a solid performance.

White House types might have been hoping that headlines like “U.S. Poverty Rate Rose Again in 2004,” or “Poverty in U.S. Grew in 2004, While Income Failed to Rise for Fifth Straight Year,” would be wiped away and replaced with the cheery: “Economy Grew at Steady Pace in Second Quarter.”

For the most part, however, those wishes were not realized.

The Web sites of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today didn’t allow the AP piece trumpeting the good news to bump the poverty story from the main headlines.

The Washington Post, however, felt differently. As soon as the economic numbers were released this morning, the poverty story was pushed down and a piece from AP about the rosy economy was featured.

Oddly, the AP story, by Jeanine Aversa, makes no mention of the poverty figures released yesterday. In typical business story style, it clinically examines the different factors that affect the GDP — fluctuations of the business cycle, the rising prices of gas, and the potential future harm that Katrina may inflict on the next cycle — but makes no attempt to connect the numbers with the way people are actually living. Throwing in the reality of increased poverty might have actually forced Aversa to explore the unfortunate contradiction of an economy that succeeds while more of its population suffers.

That’s a story we’re still waiting for.

Gal Beckerman

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.