Fact check: Did South Bend's black poverty rate fall when Buttigieg was mayor?

Posted February 11, 2020 4:40 p.m. EST
Updated February 11, 2020 5:37 p.m. EST

— Pete Buttigieg sat down for an interview with the author of a viral essay that called him "a lying MF."

The Root's Michael Harriot said Buttigieg asked him for a face-to-face conversation, and so they met up. The video of the interview posted Dec. 9 shows them talking about Buttigieg’s tenure as mayor of South Bend and how his actions have affected racial disparities in the city.

At one point, Buttigieg said: "I'm proud of the fact that black poverty fell by more than half on my watch."

Buttigieg was the mayor of South Bend from 2012 to the end of last year and is now seeking the Democratic nomination for president. South Bend’s population this decade has been around 100,000 people, and people identifying as black or African-American alone have accounted for approximately a quarter of the city’s residents.

We turned to Census Bureau poverty data to find out if Buttigieg was right about the decline in the black poverty rate in South Bend. He exaggerated. The most favorable metric shows a decline of about 39 percent. Another metric shows substantially less improvement, at only 6 percent.

Census data on South Bend’s black poverty rate

The Census Bureau collects poverty data annually through its American Community Survey (ACS). There are two sets of data that one can use to examine how poverty has changed over the years in South Bend – one-year and five-year estimates. The one-year ACS for 2018 covered January 2018 through December 2018. The five-year ACS released in 2018 covered estimates from 2013 through 2017.

There are pros and cons to each set of data. The one-year estimates represent more current information and are useful for places with rapidly changing characteristics. But the five-year estimates are more precise because they have larger samples and smaller margins of error, and they are particularly helpful for small geographic areas and small population subgroups, said a bureau handbook.

Buttigieg’s campaign said his claim is based on the one-year ACS estimates, comparing data for 2011 – the year before he took office – and 2017. (The Buttigieg campaign prefers the one-year metric, because the five-year look does not fully account for millions of dollars invested in the city in the last few years, a spokesman said.)

From 2011 to 2017 there was a nearly 54 percent decline in the black poverty rate. But 2018 data was available by the date of Buttigieg’s remark. From 2011 to 2018, South Bend’s black poverty rate dropped about 39 percent. That doesn’t back Buttigieg’s "more than half" claim.

The black poverty rate also fluctuated during Buttigieg’s eight years as mayor.

The five-year estimates don’t make his case stronger.

The ACS covering 2007 through 2011 shows that the black poverty rate in South Bend was 41.8 percent. The latest available five-year estimates are for 2013 through 2017 and show a 39.3 percent black poverty rate. That’s about a 6 percent decline from one five-year period to the other.

Buttigieg made a similar claim about South Bend’s black poverty rate during a campaign stop in South Carolina. The Washington Post fact-checked it, concluding that he cherry-picked the data.

Declines in poverty rate may not necessarily mean things improved much for some people.

The Census Bureau determines poverty status based on a "money income" threshold, which varies based on the size of the family and the ages of its members, and includes factors like job earnings, workers’ compensation, Social Security, alimony and more. If a family’s total income is less than the poverty threshold, then the family is in poverty. (Thresholds do not vary based on where someone lives; they are the same nationwide.)

The weighted average threshold in 2018 for a family of four was $25,701; in 2011, it was $23,021.

The poverty threshold is "rather arbitrary," said Joan Maya Mazelis, a sociology associate professor at Rutgers University-Camden. She added that some argue it’s too low to adequately capture the real percentage of the population that is struggling financially.

"But even before we consider that, it's important to remember that, if poverty rates decline, it could be because people are making slightly higher incomes while the poverty threshold remains constant, or that incomes increased slightly more than the poverty line increased," Mazelis said.

It's also important to note that people could be making more money, but have higher expenses, Mazelis said. "Wages tend not to keep pace with rising costs of housing, health care and other fundamental living expenses," she said.

A group called Prosperity Now in partnership with the city of South Bend in September 2017 published a report on the city’s racial economic inequality.

"Although all racial groups in South Bend face lingering economic challenges in the aftermath of deindustrialization, communities of color face the dual burdens of a weak local economy and deep racial economic inequality," said the report commissioned by the city. "As South Bend diversifies its economy to include green manufacturing, technology and the arts, a focused effort must be made to include South Bend’s diverse population."

PolitiFact: Mostly False

PolitiFact ruling

Buttigieg said that, in South Bend, the "black poverty fell by more than half on my watch."

Buttigieg relied on outdated data that did show a decline of more than 50 percent. But new numbers available at the time of his remark invalidate his claim.

Overall, two sets of Census data on South Bend’s poverty do not support his claim. The metric that most favors Buttigieg, one-year estimates, shows a near 40 percent decline from 2011 to 2018. (Buttigieg’s comment draws from one-year estimates for 2017.)

The other metric, five-year estimates with greater reliability, shows a decline of about 6 percent.

Buttigieg’s statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.

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