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Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics…and American Idol?

April 22, 2010

“In low-income communities, there is an average of only one book for every 300 kids.”

Last night, Jennifer Garner uttered those exact words during American Idol’s annual “Idol Gives Back” special, in a sequence in which the well-known and well-meaning actor travels to Jackson, Kentucky (in Breathitt County). In this eastern Kentucky locale, Garner, Idol, and the nonprofit Save the Children certainly chose an apt example of rural poverty. Estimates vary from year to year, but Kentucky routinely has at least five of the nation’s 25 poorest counties. The poverty is grinding and entrenched. Its causes are numerous and complex, but most have to do with vast, unjust disparities of political influence and economic opportunity. More important in the immediate sense, the effects of persistent poverty on children and families are infuriating and heartbreaking to anyone who’s paying attention.

In terms of tugging at the heartstrings, last night’s “Idol Gives Back” scenes in Kentucky were certainly effective, and I hope they translate into considerable fundraising boosts for nonprofits that serve the area. And yet, as with so many other media representations of eastern Kentucky and the rest of central Appalachia, there’s often a price that residents must pay when celebrities and camera crews come in on the latest mission to “save” a child, a family, or a town. It’s the price of further indignity and further distortions.

When it comes to distortions about eastern Kentucky, the statistic quoted above is a doozy. As soon as I heard this statistic, I was immediately skeptical, so I tracked down what I believe to be the source. Via a reference on The Literacy Site, I went to 2006’s Handbook of  Early Literacy Research, Volume 2, page 31. In the chapter entitled “The Knowledge Gap: Implications for Early Education,” researcher Susan B. Neuman (also one of the handbook’s editors) summarizes her earlier comparison study of two low-income neighborhoods and two middle-income neighborhoods. In the two low-income neighborhoods they studied for a 2001 article, Neuman and Celano estimated that there was only one book for every 300 children, compared to 13 books for every one child in the two middle-income neighborhoods. That’s truly a sobering estimate about those specific neighborhoods’ overwhelming lack of learning resources.

But let’s unpack that “1 book for 300 kids” number a little further. In her article, Neuman clearly writes that they estimated that number for those two neighborhoods based on their observations. Later in the very same paragraph, she writes that a national survey of low-income community child care centers found a book availability figure of 1-2 per child (and the books were generally old and in poor shape). Of course, that in itself is an alarmingly low number that represents a larceny against those children’s futures. They and all poor children still have to run the race. Let’s not let the fact that many do have the unbelievable strength and skill it takes to win distract us from how they were forced to begin 10 yards back from the starting line with weights around their ankles.

But, as bad as it is, almost no one actually faces “one book for every 300 kids.” The numbers found by the much broader surveys indicate that the problem is 300 to 600 times less severe than what “one book for 300 kids” would indicate. After finding and reviewing the original source, I’m confident that the researchers themselves intended no deception. The “1 for 300” stat illustrates a telling observation about two neighborhoods, and it’s therefore worthy of inclusion in a broad review of scholarly literature on early literacy. But it’s not a national-level statistic, nor was it intended as such.

Unfortunately, some charities have run with that number and stated it as though it were factual. The Literacy Site says, “[M]ost recent data describes a profound, even shocking gap: while the ratio of books to children in middle-income neighborhoods is approximately 13 books to 1 child, the ratio in low-income neighborhoods is 1 book to 300 children.” Save the Children’s Web site says, “There is only one book for every 300 kids in low-income neighborhoods in places like Clay County, Kentucky, and California’s Central Valley. There are 14 books for every kid in places like Manhattan and Malibu.” And Jennifer Garner on American Idol says, “In low-income communities, there is an average of only one book for every 300 kids.”

Note that those sentences take the simple declarative form—they’re meant to be statements of fact. But in fact, they’re wildly distorted generalizations that should have never been made, let alone publicized to the degree to which they’ve now been. There’s no way in the world that Neuman and Celano would argue that their observations of two neighborhoods should be used as a starting point for any wider estimates. Doing so would violate every principle of academic integrity that they’ve likely encountered since their undergraduate days. Of course, charitable fundraisers don’t have such rigorous standards, nor should they in my view. It’s their job to persuade. But I don’t think they should blatantly lie—leave that to the political fundraisers. Unfortunately, when The Literacy Site says that “most recent data” shows the “1 for 300” gap, that crosses the line from being a mere exaggeration or distortion and arguably becomes a flat lie. Not even the article and the scholars from which they took “1 for 300” actually make that argument, so it’s doubtful that there’s actually ANY recent data to support what they’re saying.

So what’s the harm anyway? After all, because of the massive exposure a show like American Idol can generate for unknown people and ideas, a lot of people probably texted or went online to make a donation to Save the Children (or the Christian Appalachian Project) before they went to bed last night. And God, I hope so.

But those same people, and a whole lot more who didn’t make a donation, woke up today “knowing” that there is only one book for every 300 children in Breathitt County, Kentucky. Like so many other things millions of people think they “know” about eastern Kentucky and  Appalachia, it’s just plain wrong. To the extent that perception equals reality and therefore influences the public policy that shapes the injustices that prevail in the country’s poorest communities, such misinformation can be damaging. For every person who gave $10 to Appalachian literacy and poverty relief efforts last night, how many more said to themselves, “Damn, those people are screwed, and there’s nothing anyone can do”? How many more will now believe, or have their existing beliefs reinforced, that fighting poverty in Appalachia and elsewhere is a lost cause?

I could offer a statistic to answer those rhetorical questions, but that doesn’t mean you should believe it. Just like “one book for every 300 kids,” it would be a complete falsehood that a credibility-deficient source conjured up to make a point at the expense of the truth. To me, that’s a big problem, even when—or especially when—the larger message is a valid one that needs to be heard.

  1. CM Tomlin permalink
    April 22, 2010 2:14 pm

    Right on. It’s tough to dismantle the research of what, as you rightly say, is a well-meaning intention — but to me this only seems like further American Idol distortion. In this case it was to pull at heartstrings (something I hope they achieved), but on a larger level it’s rather indicative of some of the regular-season manipulations that are going down this season.

    Things like the sudden turnaround on Tim Urban, a contestant the judges seemed to despise and want absolutely GONE for the entire first half of the season, then changed their tone once the numbers seemed to prove that it didn’t look like he was going away anytime soon (he did, last night, actually, but the judges seemed to almost have safeguarded their stance to appear that they were “behind” Urban if teen girl voting actually propelled him into the final three or four ).

    American Idol has always been a little sketchy, but this season seems the sketchiest yet as far as judge influence. In last night’s program, another influence seemed to be at work; but at least its hoodwinking could possibly do some folks some good.

  2. Lois permalink
    April 22, 2010 10:27 pm

    Basically if my math is correct this statement indicates that there are 13 books in Breathitt County for children. As per 2000 census data there are 16,100 people in Breathitt County and 25.5% of the population is less than age 18. Therefore there are 4105 children and at a book rate of 300 to 1 that puts us at 13.6 books for the county(my source is Wikipedia I admit, but it is pretty close). I have personally purchased at least a thousand children’s books for my Breathitt County nieces so I can personally refute this claim.

    I can’t argue that there is a need for literacy education in the area as a whole, but those blanket statements certainly do get old.

  3. Edward permalink
    April 24, 2010 2:42 am

    I live in breathitt county and I may go as far as to say that even though there may be people here who are dirt poor, that its not a reflection of the county or state in general. I mean I would even go as far as to say that LA would have 78% more homeless or poor which need to be helped. However, Its anything for the ratings I guess……what bull$hit! And most people who are dirt poor here are the ones who choose to not work and have anything.

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