New York Times Flunks Putting Numbers in Context in Chicago

February 17, 2020

The New York Times had an interesting piece about three generations of an African American family, focusing on a man who moved from the South to Chicago in the mid-1950s. He had enjoyed a reasonably comfortable working class life in the city, but one of his daughters moved to the suburbs, because she saw it as a safer place to raise her daughter. The daughter eventually moved to Houston where she had better career prospects. This is given as an example of the outflow of African Americans from the city, which has numbered roughly 200,000 in the last five years.

At two important points the piece includes numbers, that are not adjusted for inflation, and therefore provide the bulk of its readers with no useful information. In one case it tells readers that Mr. White, the central figure in the piece, lost a job in a meat packing factory that paid $13.60 in 1992. Since most readers do not have a good idea of inflation over the last three decades, they likely would not realize that this was a relatively good-paying job. Prices have risen by more than 80 percent since 1992, which means that this job would have paid roughly $25.00 an hour in 2020 dollars.

The other number that likely makes little sense to readers is the $23,500 price that Mr. White, and his wife Velma, paid for their house in 1967. Since prices have risen by more than 580 percent since 1967, this would be equivalent to roughly $160,000 in today’s dollars.

This was obviously a piece that involved considerable time investigating. There is no reason that the reporter, or a staffer at the paper, could not have taken the ten minutes needed to put these numbers in a context that would be meaningful to its readers.


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