This Strikes Me as Highly Manipulative and Misleading

March 10, 2009

Here’s the CNN headline: “Report: 1 in 50 American children homeless”

Here’s the top of the article: “(CNN) — One in 50 children is homeless in the United States every year, according to a report released Tuesday.”

The photo on the article showed a mother and children (one in a baby stroller) walking through what seems to be a park. They’re homeless, right? But it seems unlikely that 1 in 50 children live in parks, so I looked for the “study.” It’s from the “National Center on Family Homelessness,” which is no doubt a public interest group with no interest at all in inflating the numbers. (Do groups like that ever report good news? Ever?) And after visiting their website, I managed to find a little on their methods of counting.

The “study” claims that “OVER 1.5 MILLION OF OUR NATION’S CHILDREN GO TO SLEEP WITHOUT A HOME EACH YEAR.” By “each year,” they mean “at least one night a year.” But what does “without a home” mean? Well, I was evidently homeless as a child. When my father changed jobs, we stayed with friends. We also stayed for a time in a — horrors! — trailer park! If you do that, you are counted as homeless, as the criteria include:

• Sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason (sometimes referred to as doubled-up);
• Living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to lack of alternative accommodations;

Other friends of my parents also stayed with us while looking for work or transitioning into new jobs, as did relatives. So all of us children would have been counted as “homeless” by the criteria applied by the National Center on Family Homelessness.

It’s worth repeating that if you did that for one night out of a year, you are counted by the National Center on Family Homelessness as “homeless”: “These data come from a Point-in-Time (PIT) count and therefore do not tell us how many people are homeless in a given year, but only those counted on a given night.”

There does not seem to be any discussion of whether “homelessness” as the National Center defines it is getting worse or better. I searched for the word trend in the report and it appeared once, en passant in a discussion of data sources on academic proficiency and the National Assessment of Educational Progress; that is to say, there seems to be no discussion at all of trends regarding “homelesness.” Similarly for “change,” which did not discover any discussion of “changes” in homelessness. (I also note that the numbers are for 2005-2006, but I will need to study this more carefully to determine whether they are referring to two calendar years or a 12 month period that straddles those years.)

This deserves more study. The headlines and the claims that “One in fifty American children was homeless in 2005-2006” sure caught my attention. But it seems that, by those standards, I was a homeless child. And such claims do violence to meaningful language and represent a deliberate deception of the public.

This is a serious issue. What seems to be a deliberately misleading “study” does not advance our knowledge of the topic. Kids living in parks or shuttled in and out of residency motels by local bureaucracies are in bad situations, the causes of which deserve serious study in order to remedy the problem. Counting my childhood as a “homeless” one merely mocks their condition and does nothing to advance our understanding. (After a more careful study, I’ll get back to this. There may be some answers to my objections, but I could not find any with a quick read. If anyone finds any, please let me know. I suspect, based on the shoddiness of the report, that I will just find more deception, but I will work to keep an open mind.)

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Posts about Camping as of March 11, 2009
March 10, 2009 at 10:26 pm

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom March 10, 2009 at 11:31 am

The other thing to remember (this is buried deep, deep in that report (appendix 2, to be specific)) is that 2005 was the year of Hurricane Katrina. Essentially EVERY CHILD FROM NEW ORLEANS could have been counted in this study. If they went to stay with a relative or in any other temporary housing, and they enrolled in school, they probably got included in this count.

Dave B March 10, 2009 at 11:38 am

Statistics are manipulated to make the most impact for whatever your cause happens to be. If something wnet from 1% to 2% the media wil say there has been a 100% rise. Most peole aren’t that clued in to math thanks to the liberal eductaion system developed over the years.

So the peole who are foreclosed on i suppose lived in their homes for free because they couldn’t afford rent so now will be homeless. What a joke! Because of the cheap money, rentals have been lagging. So now B.O wants to keep people in homes they can’t afford and stick it to the landlords. Jerk.

Daniel March 10, 2009 at 11:40 am

If this is true, then these are clear signs that America is slipping into fast becoming a third world nation.

gabriel March 10, 2009 at 2:10 pm

we wonder why we are screwed up to the right on the cnn site is an ad for skin care to look like a star..we will continue to see stories like this as long as we allow bank and wealthy to not be accountable for their greed and actions…

Bonnie March 10, 2009 at 4:33 pm

Well, yes, it does appear that you were homeless during your childhood. Not the entire time, of course, but by definition. As a child you had no control or choice over the situation; that put you at risk. Families “doubling up” is often prohibited by local codes or lease agreements, leaving some people vulnerable to eviction and/or prosecution. While the immediate environment might be out of the weather & physically safe for the night, it still leaves a child at grave risk. Your family did all they could in the circumstances. Luckily for you, they were able to reverse their fortunes. But you were homeless and the risk was there. How did your schooling continue? Were you able to get routine preventive medical care during this time? Did you make friends or feel any sense of security in these temporary dwellings? We’re talking about children here, who are vulnerable because of circumstances they have no control over. I think that was the point of the article.

Tom G. Palmer March 10, 2009 at 10:35 pm

I think that Bonnie’s remarks are truly bizarre. I was certainly not “homeless.” We stayed with friends of the family. That’s called “civil society,” not “homelessness.” And when friends of my parents were transitioning in work, they stayed with us. I was not “at risk.” Ever. Are renters “homeless”? They rent apartments without owning them!!! Are children by definition “homeless”? They don’t own their own homes! They have to stay with their parents! They don’t have any other options, the poor homeless creatures.

There is a condition of homelessness — when you have to live in a park or sleep in a cardboard box. That is a terrible condition. To conflate that with staying a night with your grandparents or your uncle and aunt is to mock those people who do live under bridges, or who are shuttled from one expensive (but state-paid) motel room to another day after day.

Bonnie’s comments are either a clever and subtle parody, or a sign of a mind with no connection to reality.

Bonnie March 12, 2009 at 8:49 am

Ok, some clarifications:
It seems by the definitions used in the article “experiencing homeslessness” is not the same as the chronic state you describe. The idea is to intervene early to prevent the chronic state. In a civil society we do care for each other in the way you describe. Unfortunately our society is far from civilized in this area. Children must stand by while their parents depend on the kindness of others. Tom, you were fortunate that your parents had friends and family able to help, and it is commendable that your family helped others in return. The point is that if such support is not available, as is often the case today, what happens to the children? How many families with children have you taken into your home this year? I’m still wondering about how schooling and medical care was handled when your family moved around.

There is a huge differnce between staying a night with your grandparents to visit and staying there because you mother doesn’t have any place left to go. I guess the difference could be summed up as security. Often when things get to the point where children are living in a park or a cardboard box (in reality more often a car) the state will intervene & remove the children. Separating them from their parents always harms a child.
It seems the point of the article is that if 1 in 50 children experience homelessness each year and we do nothing, we can expect more of them to end up under bridges & ultimately become wards of the state.
Back to a very basic dilemma: How do we help children who need it without helping the parents we might think don’t deseve it?

Cindy G. March 12, 2009 at 2:52 pm


I think that Tom’s point is that if you count any risk factors that might lead to homelessness as homelessness, you confuse the whole issue. If we counted all forms of sexual aggressiveness (like persistence in asking you out, even when you’ve said no) as rape, because it sometimes culminates in rape, we are not communicating. We are deceiving. To be “homeless” for one night is not a condition of homelessness, unless we want to say that because I was hungry this morning before lunch, I should be counted as a person who suffers from hunger and used in a report to justify changes in government policies.

Charles N. Steele March 12, 2009 at 9:09 pm

After taking a look at the report, here’s how I’d describe it: a special interest organization that stands for massive expansion of the welfare state has cooked up some phony numbers (i.e. lied), added a lot of photos of children (i.e. made an appeal to emotions) and then offered remedies that would expand their own power and budgets (i.e. rent-seeking).

The nonsense about forcing lenders to give away homes and funds (that’s what forcing banks to reduce mortgage payments is) I find particularly offensive. Wrecking the financial system by cancelling contracts en masse will do more and longer-lasting damage to American citizens, including children, than our current mortgage mess ever could.

Similarly, creating a national health insurance program that covers every “child” under 21 has nothing at all to do with protecting genuinely homeless children, but that’s one of the major recommendations of this group.

Claiming “it’s all for the benefit of the children” is a reprehensible lie, but scoundrels use it all the time.

Tom G. Palmer March 12, 2009 at 10:50 pm


You claim that “There is a huge differnce between staying a night with your grandparents to visit and staying there because you mother doesn’t have any place left to go.” True. But having a family to spend time with when you need it means that you are not homeless. The phony “study” that is being discussed classifies people who spend one night with others because they don’t have their own place as “homeless.” I have had friends stay with me when looking for work — they were staying with a friend, not “homeless.” (Two stayed for weeks while interviewing; they would have been counted as “homeless” for doing that just one night.)

You ask “what happens to the children” when their parents don’t have their own place and don’t have friends or family with whom to stay. Then — and only then — are they “homeless.” Otherwise, they’re staying with family or friends. You must have had a very privileged childhood never to have had to move for purposes of finding work or for similar reasons. And when people do that, they are often not living in their own homes — they stay with friends or relatives. But that doesn’t make them homeless, not if by that term we also include people living under bridges. There is a huge difference between those two conditions. To lump the two conditions into the same category is to be very, very manipulative and deliberately deceptive. Cindy is on the right track: when people such as Andrea Dworkin classify all sexual intercourse as rape, they trivialize the experience of rape. And when rape is redefined as any situation in which a person later experiences any feelings of regret — as was done some years ago — in order to inflate the stats on “rape,” we add to the injury of actual rape the insult of comparing it to post-coital regret. Moreover, classing as rape any situation that sometimes results in rape is absurd.

As Charles notes, this “study” is complete bunk — a reprehensible lie — and highly insulting to those who experience actual homelessness. Shame on the people who have tried to con the public in this fashion.

Bonnie March 13, 2009 at 9:18 am

Ok then, what type of study and/or news report would make you care enough about the problem to want to do something about it?(and demand that your represntatives to do something)

Check out the numbers in a recent post here. These circumstances lead to homelessness, and homeless children become wards of the state. Would you have us say that homelessness is not a problem for these children? Should we wait until after the fact to intervene? That’s like saying cancer statistics should only count those in the terminal stages. It may make the numbers look more palatable, but it does nothing to urge us to address the problem. We need to look at the entire continuum.

Maya M March 13, 2009 at 5:30 pm

If we are to make an analogy with cancer, I’d say that the study is comparable to equating all women who ever found a lump in their breasts to breast cancer patients, even if the lump has been proven to have nothing to do with a tumor.

Joshua Thompson March 14, 2009 at 2:12 am

Bonnie —

To reiterate: The problem is categorizing the “non-homeless,” as “homeless.” This is a problem because: (1) it violates language; (2) demeans and trivializes the homeless; and (3) manipulates and deceives the public (which can lead to public choice problems as outlined above).

It is not a valid response to say: “what type of study would you make to address the problem of homelessness.” You do not address any of the problems Tom has outlined, and even go so far as to insinuate that being deceptive is a good thing. You say that “these circumstances lead to homelessness,” yet this is not what the study says. It says these people ARE homeless. It is precisely because people will respond to this bogus study as you have (by reading stuff into it that the study doesn’t say) that this study does actual harm to addressing homelessness. If there is a problem, this study does nothing to help us confront it.

Joshua Thompson March 14, 2009 at 2:13 am

This is a problem I frequently run into, and perhaps someone has some insight into how best to resolve it. When one person (Tom, here) argues a certain position (the absurdity of the 1/50 homelessness study) by making points A,B, and C. The other person (Bonnie) responds by arguing D, E, and F. The first then responds to D,E, and F, then the reply is just to reiterate D, E, and F again. In other words, what is the best way to make our points and change minds when someone refuses to think?

Tom G. Palmer March 15, 2009 at 1:14 am

I think that this issue has been discussed enough for now.

Bonnie March 16, 2009 at 6:40 am

Thank you for the feedback. I see that I was discussing homelessness, and others were discussing the study itself.

Thank you again.

Charles N. Steele March 16, 2009 at 8:56 pm

Bonnie, while you claim to be discussing the problem of homelessness, you appear to adopt the study’s phony methodology and numbers.

You also claim to worry that “homeless children become wards of the state.” But the recommendations of this study are that ALL children (defined as anyone under 21!) are to be made wards of the state.

Richard March 22, 2009 at 11:53 pm

What we have here is a definitional difference. And a slippery slope. The “study” would have us believe that if you would have to pause to fill in the “permanent address” blank on a form, you are homeless. While perhaps technically true, it doesn’t fit with the common perception of what homeless means – spending a night unwillingly outside a building intended for sleeping. Bonnie would go further and have us fret about any housing condition that isn’t “secure.” But that way lies madness, for even if I own my own home outright, a fire could render me “homeless” tomorrow. Risk of death (ie, life) is NOT death. This kind of equating risk of a condition to be avoided with the condition itself is what justifies way too much of public policy today.

To answer Bonnie’s question, there’s no study or news report that will make me care enough about the problem to want to “demand my representatives do something about it”. First, far too many studies and news reports are the kind of useless drivel that this study and new report were. So the first thing that has to happen is news reporting has to stop consisting largely of reproducing advocacy group press releases.

Second, and more importantly, I don’t believe my representatives should be “doing something about it”. What you really want is for government to force others to care, in a form that government approves of. What I (and I think Tom) wants is for others to care enough that THEY will do something about it themselves, in a form acceptable to themselves and those they are helping, without government getting involved. To argue that there’s a level of “caring” between the two, to me, is irrational. You are asking when I am willing to point a gun at someone else to get them to do what I “care about”, when I am unwilling to do that thing myself… That’s the height of incivility. If I care, I’ll do something. There should be a higher – not lower – threshold of caring before I’m willing to force you to do it for me. This is what I think is – or should be – meant by “civil society”.

tstark September 14, 2009 at 6:08 pm

I believe that some shame should be put on cnn for being so bias. And saying aperson that lives in a trailer park is being homless is bull. I have seen some pretty darn nice trailers before. I do believe that our country should do something to help the homless children, but cnn streched the truth way too much.

MNYARI September 14, 2009 at 11:35 pm

I feel that the CNN part of this investigation had made it seem a lot worse then it really is. Alot of children may not live in a house that is really big but that does not give CNN the right to be able to categorize them a being homeless. I dont believe that 1 in every 50 children go to bed homeless since what they are sayin is not true at all.

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