What's in a Number?

If a politician cites numbers, you can bet there's more to the story.

This is my second blog post, and while I don't expect a theme to develop - I hope to write about anything and everything - my first two posts have now focused on numbers.  Specifically, numbers applied in a misleading manner to support an otherwise false claim.  This is a practice unique to no one political party, corporate ad campaign (4 out of 5 dentists agree!), or that guy trying to justify his fantasy baseball trade offer.  But the more we recognize it, the more we learn to question numbers and go digging for the full picture.

The example I have in mind stems from the following statement, excerpted from Mitt Romney's speech to the NAACP on July 11, 2012:

"If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone. Instead, it’s worse for African Americans in almost every way. The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, and median family wealth are all worse for the black community. In June, while the overall unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2 percent, the unemployment rate for African Americans actually went up, from 13.6 percent to 14.4 percent."

Romney's statements are factually accurate (though the actual numbers have since been adjusted slightly), and I welcome his willingness to broach an issue that demands far more attention.  Equal opportunity is not an accomplished fact; if it were, no single demographic would exhibit employment statistics so vastly different from the overall trend.  But then, in support of Romney, Florida's Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carrol said the following:

"President Obama's policies are failing us.  The African-American unemployment rate increased by almost an entire percentage point last month and, at 14.4 percent, it is almost double that of the nation’s overall unemployment rate. This is simply unacceptable... President Obama’s policies have made a bad situation worse for struggling African American families"

Carrol cited the very same accurate statistics that Romney had used, but by adding further commentary to those numbers, the question can be asked: is her MESSAGE accurate?  Can the policies of President Obama truly be blamed for either creating or failing to alleviate the awful disparity in the demographics of unemployment?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics sheds some light on the question, as it tracks the African-American unemployment rate as far back as 1972.  The results are both interesting and promising.  (Numbers below are the average multiple of the African-American unemployment rate relative to the overall unemployment rate over the full term of each Presidential administration - i.e., 2.00x equals African-American unemployment at a rate twice that of overall unemployment):

1972-1976 (Nixon/Ford):  1.84x

1977-1980 (Carter):  2.05x

1981-1988 (Reagan):  2.07x

1989-1992 (Bush Sr.):  1.98x

1993-2000 (Clinton):  1.92x

2001-2008 (Bush Jr.):  1.84x

2009-current (Obama):  1.67x

Looking at longer term numbers, rather than those of a single month, we're presented with an entirely different picture than that painted by Carrol.  If we were to rely on the above numbers alone, then the African-American community should be thrilled with the success of Obama's policies at reducing unemployment disparity not only to the lowest level since the BLS began keeping the statistic, but also by more than twice as much as as the reduction during any previous administration.  But should Obama receive full credit for that success, either?  In all fairness, probably not, as the promising aspect of that statistic is the fact that it has been trending downward under every President since Reagan. 

My hunch is that the achievement of true equality of opportunity is and will continue to be a painfully slow but ultimately inevitable process.  In 1980, the country had barely emerged from what will always be one of the most shameful eras of race relations in our history.  Thirty-odd years later, we have an African-American president.  It's hard to imagine that the underlying societal shift that led to such progress would have no corresponding effect on overall equality, and this is supported by the trend of decreasing unemployment disparity that spans Republican and Democratic administrations alike. 

Mitt Romney raised an issue - equal opportunity - that is crying out for greater public discussion and action.  Instead of furthering those goals, Carrol cherry-picked numbers with a tiny sample size and tried to use them to mislead the African-American community.  It's worth noting that Romney is not blameless in this matter, as it was his campaign that released Carrol's statement, but as I noted at the outset, no campaign is blameless in the arena of misleading statistics.  

I will always welcome honest debate on any issue, by Lt. Gov. Carrol, Mitt Romney, President Obama, or any other politician, and numbers will inevitably be part of such debate.  Attempts to misinform through the shock value of out-of-context statistics, however, need not be. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Geoff Munger July 25, 2012 at 05:23 PM
I see, Luca, that you have fully grasped my point. There's always more to any argument - including mine - than the numbers alone. However, I will give you a little further information with which to digest my post. First of all, using the ratio was not my idea. I selected it as my benchmark precisely because Carrol highlighted the fact that the African-American unemployment rate was "almost double that of the nation’s overall unemployment rate". Inherent in her comment (more fully excerpted above) is that this is a new development directly attributable to President Obama. So I chose to investigate specifically how the "almost double" claim compared historically. As it turns out, that statement is actually less true now than at any time over the past 40 years. I can only assume, therefore, that Carrol has considered this situation to be unacceptable throughout, but is only now choosing to blame Obama for it.
Geoff Munger July 25, 2012 at 05:23 PM
Secondly, and more in line with my overall point, there are always additional factors underlying any statistic. The world is too intertwined and complex for any one number to exist in a bubble. For example, you make a valid point that the overall increase in unemployment may have contributed to narrowing the ratio, and that if overall unemployment were to decrease, then the ratio may again increase. I actually agree, though it's impossible to know the extent of that impact. The ratio does account for both booms and busts in the economy, but if we want to try to put it on an apples-to-apples basis in order to look at the impact under Obama alone, then the only other time period with comparably high unemployment was 1982-83. During those two years, overall unemployment topped 10% for 10 straight months, averaging 9.7% overall - even higher than during Obama's administration. Across those two years, African-American unemployment averaged 1.99x overall unemployment - significantly higher than today's ratio. Can we therefore assume that Carrol would argue to the African-American community that Reagan's policies were an even worse failure?
Geoff Munger July 25, 2012 at 05:24 PM
All numbers are cherry-picked, because none can tell the whole story, and the underlying assumptions behind any number can be questioned and debated. But there is a difference between taking a number out of context and using it to falsely support an untenable conclusion versus providing greater context in an effort to more fully understand the truth, despite the fact that one's conclusions will nevertheless remain open to valid debate. Lastly, you're spot on with your final sentence.
sebastian dangerfield July 25, 2012 at 05:57 PM
Geoff The ratio, as you have presented, does not account for booms and busts, in that you chose to incorporate entire presidential terms.... 2002 and 2006 were different times smoothed out. In any event...a couple of other points on this "cherry picking"... 1- i dont read carrols statement as meaning this is a new phenomonon.. 2-to credit obama, as you do, would be to allow him responsibility for the economy, where you can easily find his supporters distancing him from responsibility, and attributing current woes still to bush. Would you be one of those? He cant be accomplishing anything, if its not his baby. 3) i read carrols message that the african american community has not prospered under obama. Seems twisting and spinning on your part to miss the point. As black unemployment moves up several pct points, to endeavor to say he has helped blacks...seems tenuous, based on a ratio.
Geoff Munger July 25, 2012 at 06:21 PM
1. We'll remain in disagreement on Carrol's statement. 2. To quote from my own post: "But should Obama receive full credit for that success, either? In all fairness, probably not..." I think I make it quite clear that in my opinion, the trend in that particular ratio has more to do with societal factors than with any particular policies. My intent in this post is not to credit Obama with anything; it is to highlight an example of the misuse of statistics for political ends. 3. Carrol could have stopped at making a general claim about the overall depressed economy. She instead attempted to convince the African American community that they have been specifically harmed by Obama's policies, citing numbers that - when placed in historical context - undermine rather than support her argument. As for booms and busts, I didn't have space to list every single year, but the overall declining trend - and at roughly similar numbers - is evident even then. But yes, the numbers are "smoothed" somewhat.


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