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Counting Arizona:

Lies, Damn Lies And Statistics

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A collection of Arizona flags. Image by twn1340 and used under the terms of a Creative Commons license.
As 2012 Wanes, Numerous Groups Release Nationwide Statistics. Where Does The Grand Canyon State And Its Cities Rank?

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By John Guzzon
Modern Times Magazine

Dec. 12, 2012 — Year-end statistics are a December tradition — a time when states, cities and the nation are bombarded with percentages, reports and rankings which present things like population, income, transportation and thousands of other details.

Three of the most interesting such statistical compilations that have been recently released include the American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, Pulling Apart: A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and America’s Health Rankings by the United Health Foundation. These three studies are snapshots of who Americans are, what they earn and how healthy they are — certainly pertinent information.

Yet, as the saying goes, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Regardless of the accuracy of the data, it is merely a definition of trends. It leaves the individual out of the equation, for the most part. When referring to smoking rates for adults, for example, what is the impact of that on a non-smoker?

But it is nevertheless interesting and telling at times. Other times, the statistics are nearer to half truths and lies.

The American Community Survey
The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey is is an ongoing statistical survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. The bureau sends about 250,000 survey forms to U.S. homes each month. The American Community Survey was initiated in 1995 because of the unpopularity of the decennial census’ long form. Fully implemented in 2005, the American Community Survey now provides a yearly report.

This information is used to determine allocation of state and federal funds, and by those in the private sector.

"The American Community Survey provides the only statistics on school enrollment, jobs, housing and many other measures for all towns and neighborhoods," said Thomas Mesenbourg, the Census Bureau's acting director. "The results are used by everyone from retailers, homebuilders and police departments, to town and city planners. The numbers permit them to examine demographic patterns within metropolitan areas."

Read the American Community Survey

The information available in the survey can be broken down into ZIP codes and a plethora of other factors. Some of the interesting tidbits concerning Arizona include that in Tolleson, Ariz., 70.6 percent of people 5 and older spoke a language other than English at home, among the highest in the metro area. Among the lowest was Sun Lakes, Ariz., at 4.9 percent. For the area as a whole, the corresponding rate was 26.2 percent.

In Paradise Valley, Ariz., 69.8 percent of people 25 and older had at least a bachelor's degree, among the highest in the metro area. Among the lowest was Guadalupe, Ariz., at 3.4 percent. For the metro area as a whole, 28.1 percent had a bachelor's degree.

In Queen Creek, Ariz., 11.2 percent of the civilian employed population 16 and older worked in the manufacturing industry, among the highest in the area. Among the places at the opposite end of the spectrum was Coolidge, Ariz., where 3.7 percent did so. Area-wide, the corresponding rate was 8.3 percent.

The survey also revealed that median family income across the state rose from 2010 to 2011 from $55,353 to $60,237. This is especially interesting considering another report, Pulling Apart: A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends, claims Arizona is one of the states that is increasing the disparity between rich and poor.

Pulling Apart: A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is a well-respected policy organization that works at the federal and state level on fiscal policy and public programs that affect low- and moderate-income families and individuals.

Their Pulling Apart: A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends report identifies that the gaps between the incomes of the richest households and low- and middle-income households are wide and growing in most states. Across all states, the average income of the richest fifth of households was eight times that of the poorest fifth as of the late 2000s.  New Mexico, Arizona, California, Georgia, New York, Louisiana, Texas, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Mississippi face the largest gaps.

“Prolonged growth in income inequality undermines the basic American belief that hard work should pay off,” said Elizabeth McNichol, co-author of the report and senior fellow at the Center. “Anyone who contributes to the nation’s economic growth should reap the benefits of that growth. But for decades now, those benefits have been skewed in favor of the wealthiest members of society.”

Read Pulling Apart: A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends

Arizona’s median family income as identified by the U.S. Census Bureau as rising, but it is rising primarily for those in the higher income brackets, according to Pulling Apart: A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends, which analyzed the same Census data over the past four decades. Arizona ranks second-worst in income gaps between the rich and poor. The incomes of the richest fifth of households were 9.8 times bigger than the incomes of the poorest households in the late 2000s.

The incomes of the richest five percent of households were 17.0 times bigger than the incomes of the poorest fifth in that same period.

From the late 1970s to today, the richest 20 percent have seen their income increase by 59 percent while the poorest 20 percent have seen their incomes drop by 4.6 percent.

The Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, though, did not just identify the problems, it also presented solutions to state governments who might want to tackle this income disparity. The suggestions included raising and indexing the minimum wage, making state tax systems less regressive, and strengthening supports for low-income workers and the unemployment insurance system.

“As state policymakers plan their budgets for next year, they should pursue policies that push back against the trend of rising inequality,” said McNichol.  “States that narrow — rather than widen — income gaps will reap economic benefits in the long run.”

As long as Gov. Brewer is in office and republicans dominate the state legislature, though, those solutions will most likely not even be brought up for debate.

America’s Health Rankings
One of the major factors that judges a state’s ranking in America’s Health Rankings by the United Health Foundation is one of the solutions outlined in Pulling Apart: A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends: public health funding as a support for low income workers.

“The detailed information in the rankings provides a roadmap for helping America become healthier,” said Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, chairman, Partnership for Prevention. “Even the healthiest states can identify areas for improvement, while those with lower rankings can see what’s possible by looking at where they stand.”

Review America’s Health Rankings

While Arizona ranked 25th overall — smack dab in the middle of mediocre, but the highest result in nearly a decade — the fact that the state ranks near the bottom in public health funding and children living in poverty helps to skew that result. Some of the higher rankings that serve to elevate the state’s ranking is the second and third ranking for cardiovascular and cancer deaths.
           
Some other interesting tidbits from the report are that almost 1.2 million adults in Arizona lead a sedentary lifestyle, and 1.2 million are obese. Almost half a million adults in Arizona have diabetes and more than 900,000 adults smoke in Arizona.
                       
In the past five years, though, the rate of preventable hospitalizations decreased from 61.5 to 52.9 discharges per 1,000 Medicare enrollees and in the last year, children in poverty decreased from 27.3 percent of children under age 18 to 24.7 percent.

According to the rankings, obesity, diabetes and sedentary lifestyles will ultimately undermine any short term public health savings designed to reduce these negative health outcomes.
                                        
“As a nation, we’ve made extraordinary gains in longevity over the past decades, but as individuals we are regressing in our health,” said Reed Tuckson, M.D., medical adviser, United Health Foundation, and executive vice president and chief of medical affairs, UnitedHealth Group. “We owe this progress not only to medical breakthroughs, but to public health advocates who are working tirelessly to advance wellness on the community level. But our public health heroes cannot do it alone. Longer lives need not be sicker lives, so we must all come together to do more to prevent the risk factors within our personal control.”

Lies, damn lies and statistics: a holiday tradition.

John Guzzon is editor of Modern Times Magazine.
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