Perceptions Lie: Why Official Facts Don’t Always Add Up

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September 28, 2011 in Culture & Media

Things are seldom what they seem. Sometimes the distance between what we think we see and what is actually there is the result of personal prejudices. Sometimes it’s influenced by a kind of factual gerrymandering created by official sources and reinforced by the media. Most vacationers, for example would choose Carnival-happy Brazil in a moment over drug war-scarred Mexico. Unless they knew that Mexico has only 11 homicides per 100,000 people while halcyon Brazil is a murder leader with 31 homicides per 100,000 – a fact that seldom appears on Rio brochures or on our own six o’clock news.

And so it is here in America, where our own perceptions of unemployment and poverty often clash with the facts. The official calculation for the number of people out of work puts it at a single-digit — nine percent — while in California it nips at the heels of 13 percent. At least, those jobless people are the ones who get counted. The government-supplied figure does not include citizens who have given up looking for work or those who fly under the radar completely and were never counted in the first place. And in selected demographics – say, African American males below the age of 30 – the unemployment rate in certain neighborhoods runs to 30 percent.

And what of the poor population? The L.A. Times and other newspapers recently pointed out that the just-released 2010 U.S. Census Bureau figures show that nearly one American in six lives below the federal poverty line, which is defined as an annual income of $22,314 for a family of four.

But that’s not the perception anyone would get by watching TV, whose images almost uniformly reflect an American that is middle class or even upper-middle class. There, we are presented to ourselves as rich or rising. No characters in a sitcom or family drama are stuck in a dead-end job – or without a job, period. No families double up on housing (unless it is one of those exposé stories that always have a happy ending). Gossip Girls never go to school hungry.

Finally, what about officially-endorsed perceptions of the cost of living? We are told that there will be no Social Security cost of living bumps because, well, this recession is delivering no inflation. In fact – we’re told again — we’ve just barely escaped deflation. Except that anyone who bought groceries recently or pumped gas in the car knows that the prices in both places aren’t down.

So the reality is that it does cost us more to live in America. But the perception – created by officialdom and reinforced by what gets written in the press and shown to us on TV screens – is just the opposite. Just as Brazil is less safe than Mexico, so does poverty run deeper than acknowledged and unemployment is spiralling higher than announced.

Apparently, to know what is really happening requires reading not just between the lines, but behind the lines.

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Rev. Jim Conn
Rev. Jim Conn is the founding minister of the Church in Ocean Park and served on the Santa Monica City Council and as that city's mayor. He helped found Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Los Angeles, and was...
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  • Andy Dunning

    it’s an important point made clearly and well, which is no surprise considering that you wrote it. If anything, I think that the situation is somewhat worse than you portray it – witness the recent spate of talking heads on every outlet from Fox to MSNBC observing that poor people in this country aren’t as poor as they used to be. After all, they have refrigerators, TVs and cell phones. That kind of reporting obscures the reality of poverty and power, even as it makes true statements about material conditions: which is why the right can then pick it up and talk with a straight face about how poor people have no “skin in the game” (Neil Cavuto’s memorable phrase) and should pay more income tax.

    Nice concluding sentence, btw – “behind the lines” is a terrifically multivalent phrase. I hope you’ll continue to post on this website and/or elsewhere.

    • Cheryl Rhoden

      As always Jim,, a great analysis and ‘how the figures lie’ has been true for a very long time. I hope you’ll be writing more. I miss your monthly messages from the Church in Ocean Park back in the 70s and 80s.

      And, Andy I agree with you: How dare poor people have a frig and a cell phone?
      Golly, some really don’t have a frig or one that works right. And, its cheaper to have a throwaway phone than a land line.

      And, let’s judge all of those that are poor by the cheaters. And, let’s judge all of those that are rich or in office by the cheaters. Now, that would be class warfare.

  • Mar Preston

    Why aren’t these truths being shouted from the rooftops? Well said, Jim. In the village where I live in Kern County we announced a free pet food giveaway. 82 families showed up.

  • John Cobb

    Thanks for this. Every year I recognize more and more fully, how profoundly different are the historical realities and the images of history by which we live. John Cobb

  • Tedhampton

    You and I are often on the same thought wave, but you have put it OUT THERE! Well done and keep it going!

  • The Bibliofella

    Always grateful for more resources in my armory of “intellectual self-defense.” Thanks, Jim. Remember what the Big Media Story was, 24/7 right before 9/11? Think hard, friends. Or play along. It was out-of-control shark attacks! Then, when the news cycle hit the Twin Towers, suddenly the sharks, previously practically racing up the beach to eat our children, suddenly disappeared. While it’s important to be aware of what corporate commercial media is feeding people (and sharks) better to listen to and read alt media like at this site, and KPFK, The Real News, the Guardian, AlterNet. Check out Maria Armoudian’s new news analysis, Kill the Messenger. Of course, everybody reading here already knows this. Buy a book for a right-wing No-Nothing friend…but by all means give them a reading quiz a few weeks later. (They don’t actually read.)

  • The Growing Theatre

    Something comes to mind about “living the dream” – how much is spent on entertainment that feeds these media-driven misperceptions rather than art that feeds the soul?
    How many people are hungry but have cable?
    What would our imaginations gain from a power outage?
    How would the story get told if we had to draw upon ourselves without all the bells and whistles?

  • Walterdilg

    Nice work. Spot on. Thanks.

  • Jan

    This is wonderful – congrats! Love the writing and the layout and the graphics. I need to get you a copy of my Social Media Marketing book (another Dummies extravaganza). Can’t wait for the next post. Best Jan

  • Oldcitygreen

    Get yourself a facebook page (If you don’t have one already…)
    I will definitely link up with you. More people need a dose of your perceptions.
    All the best.
    Frank Asher

  • Revmandy

    Blessings for you blog.

  • pastor Scott T. Imler

    Ah yes, the ever-illusive truth. What is it they say about lies, damn lies, and statistics. And then, just when you do finally suss out a little “accuracy”, suddenly they announce that they are changing the way they’re going to count and henceforth 3+4 will no longer equal 2.. And I just love the official analysis that our ‘ economic problems are because “poor people” have all the money.

    “Franz Kafka, Franz Kafka ,white courtesy telephone please.”

  • Connie J

    Almost as good to hear form all these old troublemakers commenting below as to read your blog. Ernie–are you there?

  • Mark McKenna

    JIm, Congratulations on joining the blogsphere. I agree that we need to be careful about what we think of as “facts” or are presented as such. The world is complex and simplifying it to a few data points can distort as much as enlighten. As Steven Colbert has rightly observed, most of us prefer “truthiness” — i.e. information that conforms to our preexisting beliefs, over “truth”. That said, I don’t think “government”, or even political parties, which we sometimes mean when we say “government”, necessarily do a worse job than other institutions (business, advocacy organizations, think tanks, academia, even religious bodies) at presenting information in ways that highlight both what is being said, and what is being left out. In fact, in a democratic political system government is the only institution that is truly responsive to multiple constituencies, so that the information it provides at least goes through a vetting process. The problem with criticizing government in this way is that it undermines our belief in the capacity of government when government is, in fact, the only institution that can mobilize sufficient resources to take vested interests. Who most wants government to be weak and ineffective? It is certainly not the poor, who depend on government to maintain any semblance of a level playing field. With best regards, Mark McKenna

  • venetian

    Nicely done Jimmy…
    Between the lines, under the lines, behind the lines!
    And indeed, why is the poverty-line population not a parcel of the same US economic conversation.
    I especially love this line — “[On TV] We are presented to ourselves as rich or rising.”
    But how do you even know what Gossip Girls is? I don’t!!

    P.S. I, on the other hand, choose Mexico AND Brazil– but I’m compelled to explore!

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