“We cut the black poverty rate by more than half.”

— Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., at a campaign event in Allendale, S.C., Dec. 2, 2019

Buttigieg, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, has gained support in recent polls but has struggled to attract African American voters.

At a meet-and-greet event in a majority-black town in South Carolina, Buttigieg said the African American poverty rate had declined by “more than half” in South Bend since he became mayor in 2012.

Here’s the issue: The Census Bureau publishes two different estimates of South Bend’s black poverty rate. One of them barely supports Buttigieg’s claim. The other estimate, which experts told us is more statistically reliable, contradicts him.

The Facts

South Bend sits in northern Indiana, abutting the University of Notre Dame. The city population was approximately 101,000 as of the 2010 Census and is near 104,000 in more recent surveys. Nearly 27 percent of residents are black; about 60 percent are white.

The American Community Survey (ACS), which is conducted every year by the Census Bureau, provides data on poverty broken down by city. In 2012, the average U.S. family of four with household income below $23,492 would have been counted. In 2018, that number was $25,701.

The Census Bureau presents ACS data in two ways: one-year estimates, updated annually, and five-year estimates, which are more precise because the sample size is larger and the margin of error lower.

Buttigieg took office on Jan. 1, 2012. So we’re looking at ACS figures covering 2011 through 2018, the most recent year for which data is available.

The five-year estimates show a modest decline in the African American poverty rate in South Bend from 2007-2011 to 2013-2017. In this data set, the city’s black poverty rate went from 41.86 percent to 39.25 percent, which rounds out to a 6 percent cut. The drop is also 6 percent comparing a shorter period of time from 2008-2012 to 2013-2017.

Buttigieg instead is relying on one-year ACS estimates, according to his campaign. In this data set, the reduction in South Bend’s black poverty rate was “more than half,” or 54 percent — but only after chopping up the numbers selectively.

The rate fell from 53 percent to 24 percent when comparing 2011 with 2017, but if Buttigieg is using one-year estimates, why stop there? The Census Bureau last month uploaded 2018 figures to its data portal. They show South Bend’s poverty rate for African Americans rose to 32 percent. So the total decline during Buttigieg’s time in office would be nearly 40 percent, not more than half, when using his preferred metric.

An independent expert, Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau, told us, “The 5-year estimates are preferred in this case because of the large amount of sampling error associated with the one-year data.”

The one-year data jumps around quite a bit when measuring African American poverty in South Bend. In 2011, it spiked more than 13 points, to 53 percent. It tumbled the following year to 42 percent. In 2017, the city’s black poverty rate dipped more than 16 points, before rising nearly 8 points and landing at 32 percent for 2018.

In the end, two different data sets are telling two different stories. But Census Bureau materials and Mather say the five-year data is less prone to sampling errors.

The Census Bureau has an explainer on the differences between one-year and five-year estimates. “The primary advantage of using multiyear estimates is the increased statistical reliability of the data compared with that of single-year estimates, particularly for small geographic areas and small population subgroups,” it reads.

Remember: We’re talking about a subset of a subset of the population (black residents under the poverty line) in a city of just above 100,000 residents.

A spokesperson for the Buttigieg campaign referred us to another section of the Census Bureau’s explainer that reads: “One-year estimates are particularly useful for geographic areas with rapidly changing characteristics because they are based on the most current data — data from the past year. For example, ACS 1-year data were used to compare poverty rates before, during, and after the 2007-2009 recession. In contrast, 5-year estimates provide less current information because they are based on both data from the previous year and data that are 2 to 5 years old.”

No question. One-year ACS estimates are the most current. But that doesn’t rescue Buttigieg’s talking point, because he left out 2018 from his calculations and used a big, unexplained spike in the black poverty rate eight years ago, in 2011, as his baseline.

The recession was over by then. Since Buttigieg took office in 2012, the city’s population and demographics have been largely consistent in the data. When we asked what “rapidly changing characteristics” justified using one-year estimates over five-year estimates, Buttigieg’s campaign said he has drawn hundreds of millions of dollars in local investments as mayor.

The Pinocchio Test

Buttigieg is using official estimates from the Census Bureau, but he cherry-picked the most flattering instead of the most scientifically reliable.

The more reliable five-year estimates indicate that the African American poverty rate has declined far less in South Bend during the years Buttigieg has been mayor — not more than half, as he said, but 6 percent. Even when using his preferred metric, Buttigieg left out data from 2018 that complicates his claim. He earns Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

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