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MLive, census data and the politics of class

September 27, 2017

Back on September 14, MLive ran a story entitled, “Michigan’s median income is up and poverty is down, new census data shows.” 

The headline is based on a comparison between the 2014-2015 data and the 2015-2016 data, which you can search by county, with the help of the cloud database embedded in the article.

However, the MLive headline is problematic on many levels. First, while poverty is only slightly down from the previous, it is still affecting 15% of the total Michigan population and in communities of color, those numbers are between 20 – 30% for Black, Latino and Native communities.

Second, the media household income is not a great way to make determinations about economics. For instance, there are a growing number of very wealthy people living in Kent County. The number of millionaires in Kent County increased from 407 in 2010, to 600 in 2014. We also know that there are numerous individuals and families in the area that are billionaires. Therefore, even though the wealth gap is rather significant, the median income will be higher based on the fact that there is a class of people that are disgustingly wealthy. 

Third, according to a study done by the Economic Policy Institute last year, the wealthy gap in Michigan was most pronounced in Grand Rapids/Wyoming.  Unfortunately, there is no attempt in the MLive article to assess the wealth gap. There was a follow up MLive article, based on the census data, which looked at the wealthiest communities in Michigan. This was also based on median income, which still doesn’t provide a truly accurate sense of the gap between those with tremendous wealth and the rest of the population. 

Fifth, the federal government determination for those living below the poverty line is also highly problematic. There are too many factors, especially the rising cost of housing and medical expenses, which can make it difficult for a family of four that earns $50,000 a year to make ends meet.

In comparison, if you look at the data from DATA USA for Kent County, you have a somewhat better sense of the disparities in income. This chart below is a better indication of the amount of people who earn less than $50,000 a year, compared to those who make more than $50,000 a year. Clearly, over 50% of the population in Kent County makes less than $50,000 a year. What is interesting, is the spike in people making over $200,000. Unfortunately, it is hard to know how many of them are millionaires and billionaires.

Lastly, it is worth noting that the only person cited in the MLive articles on income and the most recent census data, is an economist for the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. The economist had this to say, “It’s been a hard slog, but the good news is that things are continuing to look better,” This statement doesn’t really tell us anything and we should also just ask ourselves the question, “things are continuing to look better for whom?”

It’s too bad we don’t have regular reporting on economic realities. What if working class people and those experiencing poverty were featured in the reporting on MLive? Oh, I forgot, then we wouldn’t have enough space left for print and electronic stories about ArtPrize.

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