A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Levitating Numbers

How Giuliani made falling adoptions seem to rise using cherry-picked statistics.


Summary

In an earlier article we criticized Rudy Giuliani for saying adoptions went up 65 to 70 percent when he was mayor, when in fact adoptions at the end of his tenure were only 17 percent higher than at the start, and falling. His campaign still insists his claim is justified and offers its own interpretation of the statistical record.

In this article we offer the former mayor’s rationale, along with why we believe it is a classic case of how candidates and public officials sometimes use data selectively to create a false impression.

Analysis

There is no dispute about the figures — only about how Giuliani portrays them. We work from the same official figures on adoption he does, which are shown in this graph. We also agree that the proper figures to use are those covering fiscal years, as shown here, rather than calendar years. And we agree that for purposes of this discussion the "Giuliani years" (shown in red) started with fiscal 1995, which began six months after the mayor took office but coincided with the first city budget for which he was responsible. By the same token we agree the Giuliani years ended with fiscal 2002, which began six months before he left office.

Sources: Fiscal years 1989 – 2005: The New York City Administration for Children’s Services
Fiscal year 2006: NYC Mayor’s Office of Management:
Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, February 2007; p. 35

Based on these figures, Giuliani at the Republican debate of May 3 made the statement that adoptions went up 65 to 70 percent "when I was mayor."

Giuliani: When I was mayor of New York City, I encouraged adoptions. Adoptions went up 65 to 70 percent; abortions went down 16 percent.

This raises the question, "Up, compared with what?"

It’s true that yearly figures for adoptions peaked at 73 percent over his predecessor’s best year, but he’s not resting his claim on that. His campaign insists the 65 to 70 percent figure is a valid reflection of the record of his entire tenure — if the figures are viewed in the proper way. But viewed just about any other way, Giuliani’s overall record on adoption numbers isn’t as good.

A campaign official notes, quite correctly, that the total number of adoptions was 66.5 percent higher when comparing Giuliani’s last six fiscal years (1996 – 2002) with the six fiscal years preceding. Why those years? The reason given to us is that the former mayor was referring to his creation of the Administration for Children’s Services, an agency to protect children and encourage adoption, in 1996. The official said it is "a much more responsible statistical measurement" to compare the six years following creation of ACS with the six years that went before.

Other True Statements

That, however, doesn’t give an accurate impression of what happened. It is true that there were 66.5 percent more adoptions in his last six years than there were in the preceding six, but consider this: The following statements also are true, based on the official figures that both we and the Giuliani camp accept:

  • Adoptions more than doubled in the five years prior to Giuliani.
  • Adoptions had already increased by 257 percent in the seven years
  • prior to creation of ACS, the agency Giuliani credits with increasing adoptions.
  • Adoptions initially peaked, then declined by 26 percent between
  • the time ACS was created and the end of Giuliani’s tenure.
  • Adoptions declined in five of the mayor’s last six years.
  • Adoptions have continued to decline thereafter, and in the most recent fiscal year were half what they were when ACS was created.

We take no position on whether Giuliani or ACS had one iota of influence on adoptions, for good or bad. All sorts of influences come into play that have nothing to do with government. However, the very figures Giuliani is using show that adoptions were increasing long before ACS was created, and they also show adoptions started going downhill soon after. Giuliani’s cherry-picked time periods turn that fact on its head.

Official Puffery
 

He could have been even more misleading. We give the mayor credit for not repeating the official puffery that the ACS itself had peddled. The agency once claimed that adoptions had "almost doubled" in the same period to which Giuliani refers. Even if the choice of time spans wasn’t itself misleading, claiming that a 66.5 percent increase is "almost" 100 percent is the sort of careless exaggeration that would get a reporter reprimanded, or worse, from any responsible news organization.

We don’t mean to pick exclusively on Giuliani. It’s a common fault of candidates and elected officials to make grand statistical pronouncements based on figures that, when more closely examined, reveal a different picture. We dissect this bit of spin to present a case study in how this is done. Our intent is to arm our readers against what is to come.

We also want to make clear that for all we know the ACS is doing an exemplary job aiding the children of New York. We made no judgment about that. All we’re saying is that in this case it exaggerated and tried to create the impression that adoptions were going up when in fact they had been going down for years.

— by Brooks Jackson

Sources

New York City Mayor’s Office of Management: Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, February 2007; p. 35. 

New York Administration for Children’s Services, Office of Research Evaluation "ACS Update Annual Report 2005," 2 Feb 2006.

New York Administration for Children’s Services, figures supplied by press secretary to FactCheck.org, 3-7 May 2007.

New York City Administration for Children’s Services, "Six Years of Reform in Children’s Services," October 2002.