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The Poor in College

In response to:

Did We Lose the War on Poverty?—II from the April 23, 2015 issue

The War on Poverty: Was It Lost? from the April 2, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

Christopher Jencks gave us much to think about in his calculations about the war on poverty [“The War on Poverty: Was It Lost?,” NYR, April 2], but I think there is something unrealistic about his use of those three factors to reduce the current poverty level to 4.8 percent. With our current population of some 310,000,000, this would mean only some 15,000,000 fall in that category. I believe that anyone halfway informed about the lives of our fellow Americans knows that this does not tell the true story.

The poverty level of 1964 was 19 percent at a time when the population was barely 200,000,000—let’s round off and say that 40,000,000 were classed as poor. The current official poverty percentage of 14.5 percent of 310,000 leaves some 46,000,000 in that class—a much more realistic figure, I suggest. Jencks himself offers a partial explanation as to why “the poor” in 2015, although having much more than “the poor” of 1964, remain below the poverty level. Put simplistically, I do not believe that the CPI (or for that matter, the PCE Index) reflects the true impact of the rising costs of housing, transportation, post–high school education, utilities, and such when measured against the wages now paid those struggling to rise above the poverty level.

John S. Bowman
Northampton, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

Professor Jencks (or his cited source) seems to have made the freshman error of confusing percentage points with percentage [“Did We Win the War on Poverty?—II,” NYR, April 23]. Rather than the bottom quarter of the income distribution having half the increase of the top quarter in college admissions, by the figures cited they had a 36 percent increase versus a 29 percent increase. That error is repeated further on vis-à-vis college graduation rates. Again, the bottom quarter did not have half the increase as the top but, rather, exactly the same: 14 percent.

None of this takes away from the broader argument made by Professor Jencks that only over time—rather than in the Snapchat attention span of many commentators today—can we truly assess the efforts undertaken to combat poverty in America.

William Brigham
Santa Cruz, California

To the Editors:

I was surprised to open the April 23 issue and find that no one had corrected Christopher Jencks’s math error in his discussion of the effects of financial aid for college students. Jencks states that the percentage of upper-income students entering college rose from 51 to 66 percent between 1972 and 1992, while the percentage of low income students rose from 22 to 30 percent, “only about half as much.” However, the percentage increase needs to be calculated as a percentage of the starting figure. It is not simply the subtraction of the start from the final. Thus, the percentage increase of low-income students is actually 8/22, or 36 percent, while the increase among upper income students is 15/51, or only 29 percent. The error is repeated in Jencks’s discussion of graduation rates.

To make this easier to visualize, if WidgetCorp increases its market share from 2 percent to 4 percent, the increase is 100 percent, not 2 percent. Financial aid has been a lot more effective than Jencks would have us think!

Frank Robertson
Seattle, Washington

Christopher Jencks replies:

I agree with the letter from John Bowman about the first of my two articles on the war on poverty, when he says that the poverty line is too low to ensure that families can pay for “housing, transportation, post–high school education, utilities, and such.” But my article did not argue that the poverty line represented an adequate income. It argued only that the poverty line represented a somewhat more adequate income today than in the 1960s, when the line was originally drawn. That is largely because the price index has risen faster than the prices of most things we buy. (Housing is an important exception.) It is also because families with incomes near the poverty line are now eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, which are refundable and are not counted as income. In addition, they are usually on food stamps (now known as SNAP), and about a third get some kind of rent subsidy. As a result, those who report incomes at today’s poverty line live better than their predecessors did in the 1960s, even though they live a lot worse than the average American.

Two other correspondents objected to my interpretation of changes between 1972 and 1992 in the percentages of high- and low-income high school graduates who entered a four-year college. In this case the facts are not the issue. Among low-income secondary school graduates (those with parents in the bottom quarter of the national distribution), the college entrance rate rose from 22 to 30 percent between 1972 and 1992—a gain of 8 percentage points. Among high-income secondary school graduates (those with parents in the top quarter of the national distribution), the college entrance rate rose from 51 to 66 percent—a gain of 15 percentage points. Because 8 percentage points is “about half” of 15 percentage points, I wrote that the low-income students had gained “only about half as much” as the high-income students.

Both writers argued that instead of just comparing the two groups’ absolute gains, I should have divided each group’s gain by its initial college entrance rate. To see why this approach is questionable, it helps to start by noticing that there are two ways of describing federal policy during these years. You can say its goal was either to “increase the proportion of students who attended college” or to “decrease the proportion of students who did not attend college.” These two statements mean exactly the same thing, so which one you take as your starting point should not matter. In this case, however, both letter writers favored the first approach. Because the number of low-income students entering college went from 22 to 30 percent, they concluded that attendance by low-income students had risen 8/22 percentage points, or 36 percent. Because high-income students went from 51 to 66 percent attendance, they concluded that the number of these students attending had risen only 15/51 percentage points, or 29 percent.

But now suppose we say federal policy sought to reduce the fraction of students not attending college. Among low-income students, nonattendance declined from 78 to 70 percent, so the decline was 8/78, or 10 percent. Among high-income students, nonattendance declined from 49 to 34 percent, so the decline was 15/49, or 31 percent. Using this approach, therefore, high-income students gained three times as much as low-income students. The fact that measuring percentage declines in non-attendance leads to opposite conclusions from measuring percentage increases in attendance should serve as a clear warning: this approach to comparing changes among the two groups is misguided.

There are several alternatives, but the simplest flows directly from the fact that the percentage point changes—8 points for low-income students and 15 points for high-income students—are the same regardless of whether you focus on changes in attendance or nonattendance. That was why I said high-income students gained “almost twice as much” as low-income students. The conclusion held regardless of whether one looked at the reduction in nonattendance or the increase in attendance.