Statistical Stories

I’m not a statistician, but I find a certain fulfillment in statistical data.  I freely admit to enjoying the occasional slice of Excel pie to satisfy the cravings of my 21st Century hunger for precise scientific measurement of life’s mysteries.  Yet, there is also an appeal to the storyteller in me – because statistics are truly stories, told in the language of numbers.

So both sides of my brain were mucking about happily this weekend in a fascinating longitudinal study prepared for the Unites States Department of Labor.  It’s titled 100 Years of Consumer Spending: Data for the Nation, New York City and Boston (1).

Super cool.  This is the story I want to discuss.  I mean, hell, I’ve lived nearly forty years of it myself.  One does not have to be Rasta to know Marley sang a deep truth: “If you know your history, then you would know where you’re coming from” (2).  And now I have all of this juicy data with which to work.  Statistics on what real American households were doing for the past century.  Who was working and in which industries, how much our median household income was, what we were spending it on and what the power of those dollars was on the market.  Talk about some practical fodder!

I could take today’s piece in myriad directions.  I could talk about the statistical avalanche of women entering the workforce.  I might explore the percentage of our food dollars increasingly spent on prepared foods outside the home.  I may well imagine the resourcefulness of our ancestors who didn’t include public assistance in their income figures.  I certainly wonder if my family’s expense stats share more in common with contemporary households or those at the turn of the 20th Century.  I definitely want data specific to our most recent ten-year period and I want to know if healthcare dollars spent are way up.  But there is time for all that in the weeks ahead.  Today, before we get to those fine flowering details, I believe I’d better do some root work.

Where are we coming from?  What story does the Department of Labor weave from the culled statistics of our last century?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the government story is a rosy one of positive progress measured in material gain.  Check out these figures held up triumphantly by the authors, Michael L. Dolfman and Denis M. McSweeney, in the “Reflections” section of the report (1).  Note that all dollar values are adjusted for inflation with 1901 figures used as the base.

  • In 1901 the average U.S. family’s income was $750.  In 2002-03, it was $2,282, a threefold increase.
  • In 1901, the average U.S. family devoted 79.8% of their spending to necessities (food, clothing and housing).  By 2002-03, only 50.1% was allocated to necessities.
  • In 1901, U.S. households spent 42.5% of their expenditures on food.  By 2002-03, only 13.2% was spent on food.

The authors close with this sweeping analysis:

“Perhaps as revealing as the shift in consumer expenditure shares over the past 100 years is the wide variety of consumer items that had not been invented during the early decades of the 20th century but are commonplace today.  In the 21st century, households throughout the country have purchased computers, televisions, iPods, DVD players, vacation homes, boats, planes, and recreational vehicles. They have sent their children to summer camps; contributed to retirement and pension funds; attended theatrical and musical performances and sporting events; joined health, country, and yacht clubs; and taken domestic and foreign vacation excursions. These items, which were unknown and undreamt of a century ago, are tangible proof that U.S. households today enjoy a higher standard of living” (1).

Wow.  So that’s my history: I am a part of a rich ancestry of consumerism.  Breathe that in now.  What our fellow Americans of the past century created was a nation that worked miracles of technology to give its median citizens not only the necessities of mundane life, but also the material possessions inherent to the good life.  We are a people of DVD players – ah, yes, and Amen.

I know, I know, Dolfman and McSweeney were writing for the Department of Labor, but am I alone in wanting to say to them as we used to do on the grade school playground, “Who died and put you in charge?”  Yes, everything they say is right there in the stats.  But as usual, the story I hear is in the spaces between.

The hubris of the report’s authors, the hubris of the Department of Labor, is to assume that they are entitled to decide for all Americans what constitutes a high standard of living.

I’d like to see a lot more public dialogue about what’s important to us.  Do landfills of VCRs justify DVDs as a standard of living unit of measure?  Why is my health not a necessity?  How about education?  Are we truly three times wealthier than we were in 1901?  In my opinion, my government could include in their figures some information on how Americans perceive their real wealth.  How is the quality of our water supply?  How about our food supply?  Do we have data on the opportunity cost of material gain as the intention of a nation?

Okay, before I get too political for practical Monday, let me step back.  Absent the report’s analysis, what the statistics say is that the American household is woven into the fabric of our nation’s wealth.  They also say that most of us have significant discretionary income.  Only about half of our expenditures are on necessities, meaning we have lots of choices to make with our fifty-cents on the dollar.

What intention are you acting out with your household’s purchasing power?  What story do your household’s statistics tell?

I seek not a single answer to these questions – for the answers could be as diverse as the roughly 313 million human souls who now call the United States home (3).  My goal here is only to point out that the American household has choice.  We create the statistics.  And the story that will be told 100 years from now is still very much up for debate.

How would you like it to read?

© Jennifer S. and, 2012.


(1) via 100 Years of U.S. Consumer Spending: Data for the Nation, New York City, and Boston.

(2) via Buffalo Soldier Lyrics – Bob Marley.

(3) via U.S. Population 2012: Nearly 313 Million People – Robert Schlesinger (


Share your thoughts . . .

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s