FOX News Channel host and radio host Bill O'Reilly is riding a streak of phony statistics. One week after using fake tax statistics to argue that the rich pay excessive taxes in the United States -- and one day after falsely claiming that France, Germany, and Canada levy taxes "up to 80 percent" -- O'Reilly kicked off his July 8 radio show by citing more bogus statistics to argue that the Great Society is a failure. O'Reilly claimed that, despite all the money spent on education and social programs since 1964, poverty, teen pregnancy, and high school dropout rates have either worsened or remained unchanged.
From the July 8 broadcast of The Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly:
O'REILLY: [I]t was interesting [1984 Democratic vice presidential candidate] Geraldine Ferraro come on in [as a guest on the previous evening's edition of FOX News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor], and you know, we had compiled a pretty impressive array of statistics, and basically it came down to that Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs of 1964 kicked off the modern-day Liberal movement.
And since that time, which is now 40 years, the federal government has spent $8 trillion on what I call social engineering, eight trillion, all right. These are programs designed to improve people's individual lives. And nothing's improved. Poverty is the same, high school dropout rate is worse, teen pregnancy, while going down now, is way worse than it was 40 years ago, and on and on and on.
Contrary to O'Reilly's claim that "poverty is the same" today as it was 40 years ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate in 1964 was 19 percent; in 2002 (the most recent year for which Census has released data), the rate was 12.1 percent -- a decrease of 36 percent.
O'Reilly is probably wrong about dropout rates as well. The earliest year for which the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics has compiled high school dropout rates is 1972; but since that year, the percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds who have dropped out of high school has declined fairly steadily from 15 percent in 1972 to 11 percent in 2001 (again, the most recent year for which data is available) -- a 36 percent drop. Though U.S. Department of Education does not provide dropout rates for years prior to 1972, given the nearly 30-year downward trend beginning in 1972, it would be surprising if the 2001 dropout rate were higher than in 1964.
On teen pregnancy, the data is incomplete but suggests that O'Reilly is wrong. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics' (NCHS) National Vital Statistics Reports (pdf) for 2002, "The pregnancy rate per 1,000 females aged 15-19 years for 1999 was 87, the lowest ever reported since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), NCHS series of pregnancy estimates began in 1976." (According to the CDC report, 1999 is the most recent year for which complete teen pregnancy data is available.)
But data from the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), a nonprofit organization focused on sexual and reproductive health that has tracked teen pregnancy rates separately from the CDC since 1972, fills out the picture of the long-term trajectory of teen pregnancy rates offered by CDC. Both historical data sets (compare NCHS here and AGI here) indicate that teen pregnancy rose through most of the 1970s and 1980s but has dropped precipitously since 1990. Though the rate for 1964 is not available, AGI's data indicates that the teen pregnancy rate in 2000 -- 84 pregnancies per 1,000 teenage girls -- was actually lower than the 1972 rate of 95 per 1,000.