If you read the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch today, you might have the impression that the City’s economy is getting worse compared to the rest of the country. But, if you also read the front page of The New York Times, you would likely have a different impression of how we are doing.
Both stories - the Post’s and the Times’ (registration required) - reported some of the findings of the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey. Both stories presented the same grim fact: American families are working more just to stay ahead of inflation - and those Americans who can’t work more are finding the buying power of their incomes shrinking.
There were, however, some important differences in the facts presented in the two newspapers.
The Times’ story was comprehensive, focusing on slight improvements in median family incomes between 2004 and 2005. The Times quoted experts who qualified the sharp median income differences between 2000 and 2005 by noting that the 2000 census measured 1999 income, which was at the height of the dot-com boom.
The local newspaper’s story was more cursory.
Missing from the local story were three important elements mentioned in the Times’ analysis of the same data: (1) the caution about the inflated 2000 Census data; (2) analysis of the local data between 2004 and 2005; and (3) mention of the survey’s large margin of error.
One sentence that certainly caught my attention was this one: "The City of St. Louis did not fare well in the survey."
According to the accompanying chart in the story: The decline in median income in the City of St. Louis was less than in every other county in the region except one and was less than half of the national decline; and the increase in poverty in the City was so small that it was outside the survey’s margin of error. And, the ACS data was not based on the Census’ own amended count of the City’s population. (According to Planning Director Rollin Stanley, using the correct base numbers and some reasonable assumptions would have shown both a healthy growth in median household income and a slight decline in the percentage of residents living in poverty.)
While it certainly remains true (as St. Louis Human Services director Bill Siedhoff said in the local story) that "we still have a long way to go," the City’s economy is improving.
Sugarcoating our problems is wrong and self-destructive; exaggerating them, though, does almost as much harm.