Mark Twain famously said that there were three kinds of lies — “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Since this is an election year, we can expect to hear plenty of all three kinds.
Even if the statistics themselves are absolutely accurate, the words that describe what they are measuring can be grossly misleading.
Household income statistics are an obvious example. When we hear about how much more income the top 20 percent of households make, compared to the bottom 20 percent of households, one key fact is usually left out. There are millions more people in the top 20 percent of households than in the bottom 20 percent of households.
The number of households is the same but the number of people in those households is very different. In 2002, there were 40 million people in the bottom 20 percent of households and 69 million people in the top 20 percent.
A little over half of the households in the bottom 20 percent have nobody working. You don’t usually get a lot of income for doing nothing. In 2010, there were more people working full-time in the top 5 percent of households than in the bottom 20 percent.
Household income statistics can be very misleading in other ways. The number of people per household is different among different racial or ethnic groups, as well as from one income level to another, and it is different from one time period to another.
The number of people per American household has declined over the years. When you compare household incomes from a year when there were 6 people per household with a later year when there were 4 people per household, you are comparing apples and oranges.
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