by Elaine Walker, October 26, 2012 (Downloadable PDF file)
We are constantly inundated with misleading statistics from legislators, interest groups and the mainstream media. They are misleading because statistics are almost always presented as static and unchanging, but almost everything changes over time. Nothing about society is static. They are also misleading for other reasons. Sometimes statistics are cherry picked from larger lists of data. For instance, it has been a widely used statistic that blacks and Hispanics are turned down for home loans more than whites. But never is it included that whites are turned down for home loans more than Asians, which is also true.
In another example, think about one possible lifetime of a college student. Perhaps he was fully taken care of all the way through college. While in college, even though lavishly taken care of by his parents, he could still neatly fit in the "poor" category of a statistical report since he doesn't make any income of his own. Meanwhile, his parents might have a combined income of $250k but are putting two of their children through college at the same time, paying a mortgage, car payments and health insurance for the family, all while trying to start a new business. They might be barely staying afloat month to month, yet will most likely be put in the "rich" category.
Let's say that upon graduation their son was on his own. It's easy to imagine at that point that he could be considered "poor" since he's just getting on his feet with a new job. But as he grows and matures so does his employment. Several promotions later he will be in a higher income bracket. He might actually become "rich" by his 40's or 50's. Rarely is any person in the same "class" throughout their entire lives. Many people who are born into poverty find ways of breaking out and eventually making decent incomes. There are those who are permanently rich or poor from birth to death but they are a small percentage of society. When we are categorized as "rich" or "poor" it is almost always misleadingly presented as a permanent "class" that we will always belong to, as if we are living in medieval times.
Since individuals on average move up from one "class" to another as they age, income disparity is largely an age issue rather than a "class" issue. Older people normally make far more income than younger people! There is nothing offensive about that simple and obvious fact. Yet it is precisely what is used to show how bad off we are, framed in the context of static, unchanging "classes" rather than "age groups" and completely disregarding the more realistic dynamics of individuals and our changing lifestyles.
If someone breaks their leg and is unable to walk for some temporary period of time we don't label them forevermore as "disabled". Yet, we are put into "rich" and "poor" and "middle class" categories even though our monetary situations are continually changing. Statistics about these "classes" are often used in negative ways, pitting groups against each other, often with inexplicable racial or gender related undertones.
"Household income" statistics as used by legislators are also incredibly misleading, which is of course the objective – to mislead people. Household income refers to the combined income of anyone living in any particular household, so large families with several wage earners will easily have a higher household income than a household containing only one person. There is nothing unusual about that. It's silly – even if every individual on planet Earth made identical incomes, "household income" statistics could still be used to show "rich" and "poor" discrepancies!
Since the average size of families has been declining over the decades, so has "household income" even though individuals on average are making quite a bit more. What the statistics actually show is that since individuals on average are making more income they are now able to live in smaller groups or even alone. Yet declining "household income" has been used time and time again to show a gradual stagnation of society over the decades, even though it's the opposite!
One problem is that most income statistics in general don't follow actual individuals. Instead they follow "classes" such as "the top one percent", as if they continue to consist of the same individuals over a period of time, but different individuals move in and out of income brackets all the time, and the top one percent probably has the highest turnover rate of any group. People in the top one percent are often only in that "class" for one year at a time, and only because of an anomalous spike in their income.
Misleading statistics are often used by legislators and the media to mislead the public in order to further their agenda, and then the public naively repeats them with good intentions. It's certainly a lot easier to simply repeat a statistic that we've seen or heard than it is to think through the dynamics of a complex situation and come to our own conclusions.
Copyright © 2012 by Elaine Walker. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given and author notified.