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Meet the 'zombie' poverty statistic that just won't die

In early January, Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was on ABC's Sunday show This Week. The Senate had just confirmed Janet Yellen as the first woman to chair the Federal Reserve, and by mid January Mary Barra would take the reins at General Motors

Fiorina was asked to reflect on the moment.

"Well, clearly, there's been a lot of progress. I was the first woman to lead a Fortune 50. And as you point out, there were only seven. Now there are 23 (at) big major companies," Fiorina told host Martha Raddatz. "And you have women assuming absolute top positions of power and authority in industries and politics, as well."

"And yet the data overall hasn't shifted much," Fiorina continued. "Women remain the most underutilized resource in the world and the most subjugated people in the world. Seventy percent of the people living in abject poverty are women."

With those simple words — "70 percent of the people living in abject poverty are women" — Fiorina joined a line of people stretching nearly two decades to cite this powerful statistic. Hillary Clinton said it when she was first lady. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew used it twice in the past few months. Walmart included it in a 2012 report on corporate responsibility.

It would be more telling if it were true.

The fact is, 70 percent of the people living in poverty are not women. Yet the statistic gets repeated and repeated — so much that people call it the "zombie stat."

It just won't die.

If not 70%, what?

We first heard the 70 percent claim while monitoring the Sunday news shows for PunditFact, a fact-checking project of the Tampa Bay Times and Poynter Institute. PunditFact rated Fiorina's claim False.

While there is room for better data, World Bank economists in 2013 said "the poor are equally divided by gender." In fact, World Bank economist Kathleen Beegle said men are slightly worse off than women — as males account for 50.1 percent of the very poorest people.

Somehow a much different figure is more often mentioned.

It tracks back to the U.N. Development Program. In May 1995, the group produced its annual Human Development Report, which focused on reducing gender inequality. "The unfinished agenda for change is still considerable," the report said in its foreword. "Women still constitute 70 percent of the world's poor and two-thirds of the world's illiterates." The 70 percent figure gets another mention in the overview.

That was it, those two lines. In the tables, indexes and pages that follow, there is nothing that looks at the gender breakdown among people who somehow survive on less than $1.25 a day, the yardstick for extreme poverty.

Who specifically authored the 70 percent statistic is a mystery.

One person who would have had a hand in crafting the two suspect sections was the director of the Human Development Report Office. In 1995, that was Inge Kaul. Kaul, now an adjunct professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, wouldn't tell us if she wrote the lines that included the 70 percent statistic, but she stood by them — for the most part.

"When you read the report, it is quite obvious, how the figure was — most likely — constructed," Kaul said. "There are references to gender gaps in terms of income-earned/wages. If these gaps are around and often higher than two-thirds, then, evidently, women constitute about 70 percent of the world's poor."

Obvious to Kaul perhaps but not to anyone else. U.N. statisticians don't think those tables say that at all.

The diaspora of consultants and statisticians who were at the United Nations about 20 years ago recently took up the hunt for the substance behind the 70 percent claim. After about a month, Robert Johnston, former chief of statistical services at the U.N. Statistical Division, weighed in.

"I have done a little more research," Johnston said. "I conclude that the citation of 70 percent of the world's poor are women is inexplicable except as a mistake."

A myth gathers steam

The U.N. report was released in May 1995. By September, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton repeated its words at the World Conference on Women in Beijing.

"The great challenge of this conference is to give voice to women everywhere whose experiences go unnoticed, whose words go unheard," Clinton said. "Women comprise more than half the world's population. Women are 70 percent of the world's poor."

Not long after Clinton spoke, the president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, used the 70 percent figure in a speech about the bank's mission.

A couple of factors in the mid 1990s fueled the spread of this statistic. One had to do with the growing idea that antipoverty efforts should focus on women. The 70 percent claim offered a clear rationale in one phrase. The other factor was pure fluke: Just as the focus on women reached new heights, the U.N. agency that was all about women was going belly up.

In 1994, bad management had put the U.N. Development Fund for Women $20 million in the red. U.N. administrators launched a rescue mission. The same month that the Human Development Report came out, the executive board of U.N. Development Program approved a strategy to get the fund back on an even keel. In addition to cutting costs, the plan aimed to bring in more money from donor countries and private foundations. To help with that, the U.N. invested in marketing.

The campaign continued for over a decade. We found a glossy mailer from 2006 that featured actress Nicole Kidman as goodwill ambassador. It asked, "Did you know … Of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty around the world, 70 percent are women."

The same language lives on today. The Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy organization, and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the worldwide news service, both posted items with the claim in 2013.

Resistance is futile

Almost as soon as this claim was born, U.N. statisticians began pushing back.

Alain Marcoux, a demographer at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, played out the stat to its logical conclusion. In 1997, Marcoux wrote that if 70 percent of the world's poor were women that would mean an "extra" 520 million women concentrated in the ranks of the poorest adults. The result: An implausibly meager number of adult poor men.

"It does not seem that an imbalance of close to five females for each male among the adult poor has ever been observed on any significant scale," Marcoux wrote.

Marcoux was joined by others. Even a 2000 report from the U.N. Development Fund for Women found no data to back up the statement. There was a flurry of critiques in 2004.

It's not as though the experts had no impact. U.N. statisticians stopped using the number. But the claim had spread beyond the point of containment.

One of the biggest relief organizations, CARE International, actually tried to cleanse itself of the statistic. Brian Feagans, director of communications at CARE USA, told us that in 2008, a series of memos went out across CARE's 14 member chapters and 10,000 employees worldwide. Having concluded the statistic was wrong, they issued a policy not to use it.

Yet we still found it on the website of CARE's International Directorate.

"At times, you feel like the stat enforcer," Feagans said. "A new employee comes along and they might look at the archives and see a report that came out in 2004 and they say, 'That's a great stat and it looks valid.' And we'll have another round of communications to warn people again."

In 2010, Duncan Green, then head of research at the antipoverty group Oxfam GB, pleaded for advocates to stop claiming that 70 percent of the world's poor are women.

Green is still waiting for people to heed his cry.

"It's the zombie stat," he said. "You kill it, and then it rises from the dead."

A formula for success

Factoids are like plants, animals and bacteria. Give them the right blend of attributes, drop them in the right environment, and they will thrive.

Tom Ahern understands perfectly why the claim lives on. He runs Ahern Donor Communications and makes his living crafting phrases that evoke empathy and inspire giving.

"It has just enough of everything you want. It touches on two things people care about — poverty and women. And the number itself makes it feel authentic," Ahern said.

In a weird way, Ahern said, the scale of the stat works in its favor.

Media analyst Craig Silverman calls it the Goldilocks Factor — the statistic is bigger than people expect, but not so big that they question it.

Vectors of bunk

The claim also underscores the legions of intermediaries that sit between the public and the people who actually produce the original data.

Whoever wrote the foreword to that 1995 U.N. report was an intermediary, adding a dash of rhetorical flourish to an otherwise dull gray canvas of statistics and analysis. The marketers, speechwriters, pundits and advocates are all doing the same thing. They represent a class of information designers.

Like interior decorators who decide where the sofa should go and the right shape for the valence, they don't make something new. Without the expertise to judge a fact's accuracy, they pick and choose among the bits and pieces they can find. And once it's said, it sticks.

Treasury Secretary Lew's press office said he would not make the claim again, but we don't expect a correction. Repeated efforts through a variety of channels to reach Carly Fiorina produced no response. Multimillionaires hire staff to insulate them from chaff, and she may remain unaware of her mistake.

If so, she's likely to repeat it.

Contact Jon Greenberg at or (202) 463-0573. Follow @jonzgreenberg.

Meet the 'zombie' poverty statistic that just won't die 07/03/14 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2014 1:55pm]
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