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Definitional Sleight of Hand

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Among statistics scammers, one of the favorite weapons is the creative definition. James Taranto of the WSJ has a great example here. The National Center on Family Homelessness released a report saying, "One of every 50 American children experiences homelessness...." The Associated Press reports that claim here, as the story lead.

Now let's take a look at the full report. On page 5, we find that the definition of "homeless" includes persons who are "Sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason (sometimes referred to as doubled-up)." By this definition, my brother-in-law and his family were "homeless" their first few years in America. They lived in my home. Needless to say, they did not consider themselves homeless. Nor did I.

The report says this preposterous definition of "homeless" is written into the No Child Left Behind Act. That is not the silliest thing Congress ever enacted, I suppose, but it's in the bottom tier.

One of the first rules of skeptical reading of studies is to watch those definitions.  As we have noted here more than once, there are people who are guilty as sin on the notorious "innocence list."

The thing that bothers me is that people can put out bogus reports with doctored numbers, and very few people seem to care as long as the policy position being advocated is Politically Correct. The reports are taken seriously and cited in public policy debates as if they were the truth. Organizations that have played fast and loose with numbers retain their reputations, when by all rights they should be treated as having completely forfeited their credibility, and their next report will be taken seriously as well.

2 Comments

It's possible, of course, that defining the children as "homeless" makes sense under the NCLB statutory scheme, but it certainly is completely wrong to swap definitions, i.e., using a term with a technical definition in a statute that has a common meaning that is not the same as the statute. Anyone reading that would think the kids are on the street or in a shelter, not in a house with family. How many people move back in with their parents? Quite a few. And many of them have children.

Re: Innocence list, let's hope that Timothy Hennis is convicted in his army trial. Then the fact of that conviction can be thrown in the face of any reporter who uncritically passes along Dieter's "innocence" list. In lay terms, "innocence" means "didn't do it", not "was able to get off because of the passage of time, etc." Anyone wanna take odds that Jeremy Sheets didn't do it?

I was immediately skeptical when I heard this story yesterday. I downloaded the report and noted the very vague methodology descriptions used at the end of the 100 page document.

I also did some quick calculations noting the number of 0-14 years old in the US. My quick calculations suggest this would mean there were at least 1.5 million homeless children in the US.

That just smacks of incredulity.

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