By Morf Morford, Tacoma Daily Index
The “fact” in the headline may be technically “true”, but if one knows the context, it becomes obvious that numerical data points are not the essence of the argument. And, as you may have noticed, equally questionable statistics have become the surging core of political agenda and pre-digested (and regurgitated) opinions across social media and what passes for conversation (or news) in our ever more fracturing time.
Half of Americans are below average
A “median” is the middle point of any line, with half above and half below. That’s also one definition of what “average” means.
According to our screen-based “talking heads” and a few opinion-filled people we may know, we have detailed information on what the average America earns, spends, weighs, eats, watches and does (among a few dozen other things).
There are two things we need to keep in mind when we hear statistics – especially alarming ones; first, there is no such thing as an “average” American (or man or woman or teenager, or just about anyone else) and second, if you lean on almost any statistic, you find exceptions, alternate interpretations and more than a few false positives and false negatives.
Did you know?
When I hear this line, my first (unspoken) response is almost always, “No, I don’t, and you probably don’t either.”
You’ve probably noticed that statistics and data points tend to be filtered through political or philosophical lenses. For a logical and reasonable conversation, it should be the opposite – political or philosophical positions should be sifted through facts and reasoned, informed analysis.
Work, money and the economy
On any given topic, data points are just snapshots. These are what some people said about this issue at that time. New information emerges, people change their minds and situations shift. What was true yesterday (in the economy or job market for example) may be irrelevant today.
In our era, it seems that everything from breakfast cereal to the car we drive has become political. In a sense, when everything is political, nothing actually is. In case you’d like to understand politics beyond the noise, panic and overall sense of manufactured chaos, I highly recommend Five-Thirty-Eight.
In the military
In 2020, the Defense Department estimated that 23% of Americans ages 17–24 were eligible for military service; that is down from 29% in 2016. As you might guess, one of the top reasons for dwindling eligibility for military service is obesity: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than one in three young adults is too heavy to join the military.
In a poll from spring 2022, only 2% (!) of people ages 16 to 24 replied, “Definitely” to the likelihood of joining the military. 8% responded, “Probably,” while 89% (that’s nine out of ten!) were unlikely to consider joining.
Getting married used to be something that young people just did, largely without thinking about why – or when. When it comes to marriage, here are a few data points that might be informative, but who knows what they really mean. Or what they say about the state of marriage right now.
The state of Utah has the average youngest age of marriage (26 or under).
Those in the Midwest are not just more likely to actually be married, but also more likely to be married younger and stay married longer compared to the rest of the country.
The West Coast, Northeast, and Florida specifically have later median ages of first marriage and higher proportions of same-sex couples.
In the economy
Nationwide, almost 12% of Americans live in poverty. That’s about 7.5 million families.
Louisiana and New Mexico have the highest (and same) level of poverty at 18%. Minnesota and New Hampshire have the lowest (and same) level of poverty at 6.9%. Washington state is near the lowest at 7.7%.
In the fourth quarter of 2022, the US gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was $78,347. GDP represents the total value of all goods and services produced in the US on a per-person basis if it were divided equally among all citizens.
As you might have guessed, the highest GDP per capita is not at a state – it is the District of Columbia at a shade under $250,000.
Of the states, New York is the highest at $103,000, Washington state is near the highest at $97.8K and the states near the bottom are Alabama, Arkansas and West Virginia with a median GDP of a little over $50,000. Mississippi GDP is the lowest in the country with a GDP of about $46,000.
As you might think, people with little money are less likely to use banks – and those with more assets are far more likely to use banks. About 6% of Americans are “unbanked” (which means no bank account) while 13% are “underbanked” which means they rely on financial services such as money orders, check cashing services, payday loans or advances, pawn shop loans, auto title loans, or tax refund advances.
Unbanked rates across the country (in 2019) varied from 0.5% in New Hampshire to 12.8% in Mississippi. Mississippi and Louisiana were the only two states in 2019 where more than 10% of the population did not have a bank account.
Reading and writing
Twenty-one percent, or about 43 million, US adults find it difficult to compare and contrast information, paraphrase, or make low-level inferences, and have measurably low literacy skills. That’s about one out of five of us.
White, US-born adults are the largest group of those with low literacy skills, making up 35% of low-skilled adults, followed by Hispanic adults, at 34%, most of whom are born outside of the US.
Of the adults with low literacy skills, most (66%) were born in the US, while 34% of adults with low literacy skills were born outside of US borders.
Minnesota and New Hampshire have the highest literacy rates; the states with the lowest literacy rates are Louisiana, Mississippi, and New Mexico.
On a global level, Japan has the highest literacy rate, Finland has the second highest rate. The USA is slightly above average, alongside countries like Denmark, Canada and Korea.
Data in the USA
If you are looking for reliable information related to almost anything to do with life across America, keep an eye on USA Facts.
On any given topic, some basic questions to ask are – who did the research and why, who paid for it, and how large was the sample. To see some guidelines on the misuse of statistics, with examples from toothpaste to Fox News, look here.
Statistics are manipulated to gain our dollars, our votes and our attention. Read carefully.
Our era has been called “The information age”. And it is true, we are surrounded by, even submerged in vast amounts of information, some true, some reliable and some not.