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.