Why the figures don't matter

As I mentioned in the comments over at Obsolete, there are certain overarching myths that right-wing tabloids push, without paying attention to evidence or giving any thought to how true those myths might be, over and over and over until you're so thoroughly bored of them, you want to be sick.

In today's Mail, we have 'Benefits bill for eastern European migrants hits £125m'. It's another in a long, long line of similar stories that are so depressingly familiar that it's taking all the effort I can muster to even look at it. The thing is predictable to the point of actually wasting the journalist's time (natch - James Slack, who never replied to my queries about where he got the figures I covered in 'No crow for me please mum!' which shocks me no end). He might as well have just gone with the headline 'Benefits bill for eastern European migrants' and left the page blank for readers to fill in themselves by hoiking up their own bile. The conclusion of the article was made before he even made his first keystroke. Or even saw the figures.

Whatever the figures were, regardless of how much they said (which is not that the bill is £125 million - but more on that later) it would have been too much. Figures and quotes must be crammed into the narrative of immigration being a BAD BAD THING. Take the scorn here:
Ministers insist that most migrants are young men with no interest in state handouts.

But the official figures show that 111,908 East Europeans are receiving tax credits, child support and other payments.
The figures the paper itself is pushing - that one in six claim benefits - clearly proves that most migrants have no interest in claiming benefits because around 84% don't. So why is there a 'but' following the quote? The figure doesn't contradict the 'Ministers'' claims. It goes some way to proving them.

The reason there's a 'but' is that the actual figures are not really important. Immigration is bad. Everything the government says about immigration is wrong. Those are the important things. Figures can be used to prove those things even when they prove the opposite.

The figures for the amount of benefits paid are as questionable as we've come to expect from Mail stats about immigration. To start with, predictably, they're not from the same place as the stats for number of claimants. According to the shiny graphic in the centre of the page, they're an 'Estimate'. So they're from the journalist's arse then. Hooray!

While the claim is that the total amount of cash paid out is £125m a year - the figures of how many eastern Europeans claim benefit is not an annual figure. It's the total one of all claims spread out over more than three years, so the story creates the impression that 12,000 eastern Europeans a year are making benefit claims. The shiny graphic compounds this impression. The number of claimants in the table are three years' worth, and the £125m is not. Since the reader's already seen that the £125m is annual from the beginning of the report, and there's nothing that explains the 11,908 is not, either in the table or elsewhere in the story, the reader is likely to come away with the impression that we're talking about an annual total of nearly 12,000 eastern Europeans claiming benefits.

This bit is especially misleading:
The Home Office figures mean that one in six of an estimated 683,000 Eastern European incomers is living off the state to some extent.
The misleading bit comes in the 'is living off the state', put in the present tense. We don't know how many of those total claimants are still claiming benefit, how many have stopped, how many have returned to their country of origin and so on. The assumptions this article is making without coming clean about are that every single person who ever applied to the Worker Registration Scheme - including those whose applications were rejected and those whose applications were withdrawn - have come here and stayed, and that every single one of them who received any benefit at any point is still here and still receiving those benefits.

*UPDATE* Another problem is that the people claiming these benefits are not necessarily separate. Someone claiming Income Support might also be claiming Child Benefit and Housing Benefit, which would make the total number of claimants considerably lower than 12,000.

The £125m itself is an 'estimate'. But we don't know how long the people claiming benefits have claimed them. We don't know how much they've claimed. We have absolutely no way of testing how the conclusion was arrived at. If the £125m is anything like the journalist's previous 'estimate' that 120 people a day come from Romania and Bulgaria to be circus stars, we know how much its worth.
Added to that is the Mail tactic we know and despise of including benefits you only get if you work and pay tax to inflate the impression of fecklessness.

And notice what is done with the idea of the bill being £125m a year. We're just given the figure without knowing if we're talking about an average over three years, or if the journalist has just chosen to measure this year - when the total number of eastern Europeans that have claimed benefit at any point is necessarily at its highest - and said the figure is annual. Given that he used something close to the latter tactic before, I think I know which one I'll pick. That'll be the least honest.

Besides that, just last week the paper 'revealed' how 10 million people in the UK are 'economically inactive' - a quarter of the work force. The figures this article shows would mean that less than half of one percent of the Mail's total for eastern Europeans have ever received the type of benefits you get without paying tax, or in other words, for being 'economically inactive'. In fact, using Daily Mail figures, the total percentage of all eastern European benefit claimants, including the ones who work and pay tax - and remember the Mail's total only measures those old enough to work - is around 16%. Less than the percentage of the overall workforce who are not working at all - that's before we even start to wonder about how many of the general population claim child benefit, or tax credits, or whatever.

So, as usual, some of the figures are confected nonsense. Others actually prove that the group the paper is demonising is actually behaving better in Daily Mail terms than the general population. But the figures - despite the attention-grabbing table in the centre of the page - are not really central to the article. The outrage is central. The actual figures are peripheral.

It's inevitable that the total number of eastern Europeans who have ever claimed any benefit since accession will rise. Given that it's only possible to claim certain benefits after having been in the country and working for a certain amount of time - it's even inevitable that these will end up representing a greater percentage of eastern Europeans who have ever applied to the Worker Registration Scheme. I wouldn't be surprised if a stash of these articles were found already pre-written with blanks to insert confected stats into. And the odd quote from David Davis.

Mind you, I wouldn't be surprised if he had a stock of reactions already generated to send to the tabloids either.

More in 'More figures that don't matter'


septicisle said...

And of course, even if they were taking out £125m in benefits, then they're putting in a hell of a lot more than that in actual tax. Also worth looking at the figures that show how record numbers are actually leaving the UK: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6958220.stm

In other words, we're not being flooded by anyone's guess, and MigrationWatch continues to be proved wrong time and time again.

Anonymous said...

It would also be interesting to know as a percentage how many are claiming just child benefit, something I imagine virtually every family with children in the UK claims.