Bogus Literacy Statistic Becomes a Weapon in Attack on Detroit

Scrambling to plant a stake in the heart of Detroit’s once-vibrant democracy, pundits, pols, and journos are touting a dubious statistic in order to cast doubt on the ability of black citizens to govern themselves.  In recent weeks numerous new stories and op-eds (e.g., here, here, and here) have cited a “2011 study” purporting to show that 47% of adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate.

Millions of viewers got the message via a recent episode of ABC News This Week, where George Will folded the statistic into an openly racist tirade about the “cultural collapse” of a city beset by “dangerous herds of feral dogs” and populated by illiterate unwed mothers.  The barely-disguised implication is that Detroit residents are a tribe of ignorant savages in need of a firm white hand to tame the urban jungle.

Racists love the 47% factoid — it’s a staple of white supremacist websites — because it undergirds their fantasy of America’s greatest black-majority city as an irredeemable hellhole.  Meanwhile the mainstream press finds the statistic useful because it meshes with the agenda of the financial institutions that recently disenfranchised Detroit’s citizenry, kicking off a smash-and-grab raid on its pension funds, health care benefits, and public assets.

When I first encountered the illiteracy statistic two years ago — then offered up by liberal bloggers like Matthew Yglesias as an excuse for the “reform” of public education — I was immediately skeptical: it simply defies common sense to think that nearly half of Detroit can’t read a newspaper or pass a driver exam.  So I spent some time researching the source and methodology.

A Web search revealed that the “2011 study” is actually a report by the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund that more closely resembles a fundraising pitch than a scientific study.  It contains no research but simply states, in a single bullet point, that “the National Institute for Literacy estimates that 47% of adults (more than 200,000 individuals) in the City of Detroit are functionally illiterate.”

That’s it.  No new research; no new study; no new data.  So where did this oft-cited, little analyzed statistic originate?  After a some online sleuthing I located the source: it’s a 1998 National Institute for Literacy Report entitled “The State of Literacy in America: Estimates at the State, Local, and National Levels” where — if you look hard enough — you can indeed find an estimate that 47% of adults in Detroit are at “Level 1 Literacy.”  (Level 1 Literacy is not the same as functional illiteracy, by the way, but it’s close enough that I’ll let the distinction slide.)

A look at the fine print discloses that the 47% figure is ultimately derived from a 1993 federal study, the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS).  The NALS, it should be noted, did not include statistics at the municipal level because the sample size — 26,000 adults nationwide — was regarded as too small for confidence at the local level.

So the 1998 study crunched raw NALS data for US counties with 1990 census data, applying a computerized “regression model” to “predict literary proficiencies for other aggregates [i.e., cities].”  The resulting estimates, the study warned, had a 95% confidence interval larger than plus or minus five points and “should be used with corresponding caution.”

There you have it: not new research, but a 1998 computerized extrapolation of information collected 23 years ago, derived from a tiny sample and avowedly misleading when applied to municipalities.  It is data intended to be used with appropriate caution by social scientists, not brandished by pundit-courtiers as a justification for the disenfranchisement and ruin of the people of Detroit.

Not long ago this type of misleading factoid might have been chased down by diligent reporters or weeded out by a professional fact-checking operation.  But today’s press, operating openly at the pleasure and for the benefit of the ruling class, can’t be bothered to question the provenance of information so useful to its masters.

Jacob Levich, who lives in New York City, has written for MRZine on military issues and tweets as @cordeliers.

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