Clinton vs Trump

How Census Data Gets Weaponized (Even When the Data Isn’t Actually Great)

Bending the stats to fit a narrative (abcnews)

Bending the stats to fit a narrative (abcnews)

This week, the US Census reported some generally good news economically.  For the first time since 1999, wages across all income levels have increased, the poverty level has decreased, and the number of uninsured has also decreased. This is undoubtedly welcome news for many households.  However, a few people, including Kriston Capps over at City Lab, have pointed out that these numbers don’t tell the full story.  The cost of housing looms large over this discussion, deflating the positives in this story considerably.  That doesn’t mean the report won’t become a useful tool in competing political narratives - while ignoring the broader picture.

Let’s start with the trends.  The US Census Report estimated that between 2014 and 2015, the real median household income increased by 5.2%.  During that time period, the official poverty rate fell by 1.2% to 14.3%.  Finally, the number of uninsured fell by 1.3%, resulting in 90.9% of Americans having some form of coverage. These are clearly welcome developments.

There are many ways to measure income, poverty, and insurance coverage. Inevitably certain assumptions are made that include or exclude variables that would change these numbers.  For example, the US Census report described in detail the difference between the official national poverty level and the supplemental poverty level. Without going into the details, it basically comes down to how they factor in children under-15 in a household.  I’m personally not sure how you could justify not counting them, but I won’t get into the nuances of this argument today.

The point is to say that these numbers don’t give an entirely accurate (or at least detailed) picture of the state of the economy and no one at the Census or any policy wonk would make that claim.  

A more detailed (and problematic) view of the numbers becomes apparent when you look at the geographical picture for more context.  The simple truth is that most of the income gains came in major cities (+7.3%), some suburbs around these cities (+4%), but none in rural areas. They actually saw a decline in income (-2%.)**

[**Author's Note: The day after publishing this blog, an article appeared that showed that the Census information on rural income was incorrect. It has actually increased by 3.4%. The discrepancy is a result of the definition of 'rural' which is slightly different between the Current Population Survey (cited in this blog) and the more finely-detailed American Community Survey, where the more accurate number comes from.]

I’ve written about why most economic gains are happening in increasingly fewer parts of the country, mostly concentrated around coastal cities and a few in-land cities.  Those cities are where the good jobs are.  It’s also where the ‘bad’ jobs are.

This fact alone might not be a bad thing, although you would hope for more diversity in job creation regionally from perhaps a cultural and political standpoint. The problem is how hard it is for people to move to these cities where those good or bad jobs are - and how hard it is to afford to remain living there.  Mobility is not following productivity or vice versa as pervious economic expansions have tended to do.  It’s making it harder for people (especially the poor) to actually gain from the overall economic expansion. That's not a sustainable model.

It’s no mystery why this is true – rent in these cities is expensive and rising.  That’s why the wage increase numbers aren’t really that impressive.  Sure, wages went up in cities 7.3% in 2014-2015 but rental costs went up nationally during that period by 4.6%. The gains are more than wiped out without even looking at the huge variances between cities.  

So even though the basic facts of this report are all positive, the details show a much more fragile and structurally broken landscape economically.  We see this disconnect when we look at recent polls. 75% of Americans are concerned about losing their homes in a downturn and over 50% of Americans are cost burdened (paying more than 30% of their income on housing). 

If all of these people are that anxious and insecure about their housing status, how is the cost of housing not a bigger issue politically?

Housing isn’t a major political issue because it doesn’t fit the narrow set of narratives identified by the media.  This is generally true, but especially true in a presidential election year. There’s the usual horse race coverage that the media loves but doesn’t ever actually address policy discussions. There’s the ‘mood of the nation’ coverage that vaguely taps into the public interest but rarely gets into deeper issues and concerns. And then there is this year’s hyper-partisanship coupled with the bizarro nature of Trump v Clinton that has all but drowned out meaningful policy exchanges.

So instead of supplementing this Census report with important context about what these numbers say and what they don’t say (and how they fit in to the larger political and economic landscape), media coverage has folded it into three predictable narratives: the apolitical and shallow: “Everyone is Doing Great Now in Economy;” the partisan spin: “Hilary Deserves Obama Third Term;” or the partisan rejection: “Economy is Doing Terribly Under Obama/Clinton.” 

Whether it’s a jubilant Jason Furman in the Obama Administration or a self-assured Paul Krugman at the NY Times, you can see the Pro-Hilary spin.  Whether it’s a “surprised” Brietbart or a perma-skeptical Fox News, you see the Trump/Republican spin. One side plays up the shallow headline reading of the report, the other downplays or attempts to question it.  Neither side spends anytime in the nuance of the actual report and no one from the political media class appears to be either.  Most of the media just covers the headline.  That’s not a formula for policy action.

None of these narratives are helpful or even ‘true’ in a useful sense.  We should of course be glad that income is rising and poverty and uninsured rates are falling, but is the economy actually ‘healthy?’ If the gains are all happening in places where the cost of living is increasing significantly, and the losses are all concentrated in rural areas, shouldn’t this be alarming? Shouldn’t this prompt actual discussions about how to alleviate the housing crisis and create more economic opportunity?

It’s not the job of the US Census to provide broader context to their reports. It’s certainly not their job to provide policy descriptions (they aren’t even allowed to set their own definitions for what or how to measure something).  But if we can’t rely on our elected officials or the media to contextualize this information and to ask the right questions about what it means, how can we even begin to address the larger challenges facing our country? 

Housing Advocates Should Remain Wary of Clinton

One has walked the housing walk. One hasn't so far. (styleweekly)

One has walked the housing walk. One hasn't so far. (styleweekly)

Recently, I published a blog discussing the major differences between the Republican Platform and the Democratic Platform in regards to housing.  While both parties have historically promoted homeownership as a core policy – with disastrous results – for the first time, they have split dramatically. The Democratic Party has acknowledged that homeownership does not need to be the end goal for all Americans and has outlined a number of rental assistance programs.  However, the fundamentals of this election cycle, and the Clinton campaign's reaction to them, should have all housing advocates wary of these promises.  A recent Op-Ed by Vice Presidential Candidate Tim Kaine offers a good case study. 

Senator Kaine has a long history of housing advocacy first as a pro-bono attorney in Richmond, then as the city’s mayor, and then as the state’s governor.  In fact, he has the most experience on housing of any major party candidate that I can recall. He is a natural and I think sincere spokesperson for the party’s housing policies.

The policy proposals outlined in Senator Kaine’s Op-Ed are more or less a rehash of the party platform (CityLab has a great breakdown) with a focus on providing more assistance for low-income renters, first-time homebuyers, and a general nod to more federal assistance for public housing.  Though they are light on specifics, I can’t stress how new the inclusion of these policies are as talking points in a national election.  Neither party has ever outlined detailed rental assistance proposals in their party platforms and rarely has housing been discussed at length on the campaign trail. 

Though I welcome this spotlight on housing, my concern is that it is more of a political weapon for the election than a policy commitment for the administration.  Senator Kaine and his history on housing are of course in stark contract to Republican Nominee Donald Trump and his history on housing.  Mr. Trump’s father, while Donald was working with him, was prosecuted under the Fair Housing Act for discriminating against minorities in his complexes.  Additionally, Mr. Trump sought to exploit the mortgage market and subsequent crisis.  In case you weren’t aware of these facts, Senator Kaine points them out.

Certainly talking the talk anyway. (newyorktimes)

Certainly talking the talk anyway. (newyorktimes)

There is much to dislike about Mr. Trump’s history on housing even if you ignore the rest of his baggage.  But, to be clear, the purpose of highlighting Trump’s history on housing is not to contrast policies as much as it is to add to the narrative that the Clinton campaign is pushing – that Mr. Trump is a con-artist who exploits the working class and is unfit to be President.

This is not a particularly hard narrative to push (indeed Mr. Trump seems more than capable of pushing it himself) but it reveals what audience the Clinton campaign is targeting: disaffected Republicans.  You only have to look at Pennsylvania to see this strategy clearly.  There are an estimated 1 million votes in suburban Philadelphia, and if Clinton can attract even a decent number of Romney voters, she will cruise to victory there at an even greater percentage than President Obama did in 2012.  By pushing the narrative of Trump as a con-artist (regardless of its veracity), rather than running for or against any specific policy proposals, the campaign is trying to make it safe for Republicans to vote for a Democrat.

Maybe this is why Clinton is afraid? (fivethirtyeight via cook political report)

Maybe this is why Clinton is afraid? (fivethirtyeight via cook political report)

This also reveals what group they are not targeting: progressives and ‘safe’ Democratic voters.  “Vote capture” pops up in every national election because certain voters are simply not going to vote for the other party.  Mr. Trump will likely do worse than Governor Romney among minorities, women, and young voters, all of whom overwhelmingly backed President Obama in 2012 (although less than 2008). Secretary Clinton could probably win the election without disaffected Republicans, but clearly thinks there is the possibility of a safer victory if she can attract some Republicans. 

The “boogie to the middle” is generally an accepted practice in Presidential elections after the primary season and there is clearly a predictable path to victory for Clinton with this strategy.  But housing advocates should be weary for two reasons.

First, this is not a normal Presidential election.  Certainly one can point to the boorishness of Mr. Trump as a candidate to see that, but the larger reason, masked both by Mr. Trump and by the Clinton campaign’s response to him, is that the political status quo has failed to address the economic and social conditions facing the country, nowhere more clearly than with the affordable housing crisis.  The populist outburst represented by Trump supporters on the right and by Senator Sanders supporters on the left are real, justifiable, and imperative to address.  By making this election about how fit or unfit Mr. Trump is (and to a lesser degree about how trustworthy or not Secretary Clinton is) both parties have pushed aside those issues despite the majority of Americans demonstrating their anger over the status quo. 

Will either candidate take housing seriously this fall? (cnn)

Will either candidate take housing seriously this fall? (cnn)

Other than Senator Kaine’s Op-ed, when has housing been discussed at length? Will it even come up in the debates? The millions of Americans struggling with housing costs deserve that discussion and subsequent action.  The primaries at least offered competing policy visions and bold ideas for the future.  That type of leadership is in desperate need for this country but it is decidedly off the table in this election.  This is a potentially tragic lost opportunity with severe consequences for millions of Americans. It calls into question if our current political framework is even capable of addressing these issues.

Second, Secretary Clinton is taking a significant risk by courting disaffected Republicans instead of focusing on the progressive base (or the Sanders coalition.)  It might win this election, but there is no governing coalition between disaffected Republicans and the progressive base of the Democratic Party. Will suburban homeowners really support allocating more tax dollars to rental housing assistance or even public housing? Most of the housing proposals in the party platform and Senator Kaine's Op-Ed would be dead on arrival.

Consider this thought experiment: what if the Republicans had nominated a 'normal' Republican this time?  Would Secretary Clinton try to reach disaffected Republicans or try to fire up the Obama coalition that has just won the last two elections? When it already seems likely that she could win based on this coalition, why reach out to disaffected Republicans? Does the Clinton campaign think she can't win without them? What is that calculation based on? In either case, what chance of major policy changes in housing are already off the table as a result of this strategy?

The Clinton campaign must know that a Republican voting for Secretary Clinton is doing so out of disgust for Trump rather than supporting her agenda. This means that the Clinton campaign/potential administration also knows it is eventually going to underserve if not abandon one of these segments of voters.  Given what strategy Secretary Clinton has chosen this time around, it’s not hard to see where President Clinton might focus in order to get re-elected.  Winning now on this strategy seems like the safe play, but if the Republicans self-correct and nominate a ‘normal’ candidate next time, Republican voters will rally and the progressive base might not forgive her.  In the meantime, it's hard to picture what housing policies would get enacted through Congress. 

It seems likely that Secretary Clinton will win this fall given Mr. Trump’s obvious shortcomings as a candidate and as a human being.   But the way she is trying to win, largely on the margins of disaffected Republicans, shows at best a lack of vision and at worst a deep cynicism.  The time for political triangulation is over.  The time for creating a new vision for housing is long overdue. The Democratic Party platform and Senator Kaine’s background offer glimpses of a transformation in housing policy that our country needs desperately.  If the Clinton campaign is already busy courting disaffected Republican voters (many of which are suburban homeowners), these glimpses might be all we see.