Steve Hansen: Remember, always check the facts

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By Steve Hansen

Former QCS Managing Editor

While browsing statistics compiled by the state Department of Workforce Solutions, I was astonished to see that Quay County’s per-capita income was higher than its median household income, or so I thought.

So begins a cautionary tale for the coming nasty political season.

The county’s median household income was $30,802, the seventh-lowest in the state. The county’s per-capita income was reported at $39,268, about 28 percent higher.

It seemed I had unearthed evidence of huge income disparity in Quay County.

That would be in line with findings that show New Mexico had the worst income disparity in the nation, measured by other standards.

To check out my findings, I presented the basics by email to Comfort Ricketts, an economist at New Mexico State University who generously makes expertise available to questioners.

She and James Peach, another NMSU economist, showed me I had compared apples-to-oranges.

The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey “is a household survey while BEA uses administrative records (e.g., Social Security and IRS data) to derive their income figures,” Peach said. “There are often substantial differences between the two sources and this is especially the case in small counties.”

Quay, population about 8,500, is a small county.

Using Census Bureau methods, Quay’s per capita income is $17,936, Peach said. That’s more in line with expectations.

But Quay still has high income disparity. It is accurately seen in the difference between median income and mean, or average, income. Mean income is the total of incomes divided by the number of income earners.  Median income is the level at which as many households earn more as earn less.

Quay County’s average income is $41,423, more than a third higher than its median income, at $30,802.

“The larger mean compared to the median suggests that there are a few very wealthy households in Quay County,” Peach said. “The mean is affected by extreme values, the median is not.”

I was right for all the wrong reasons.

For readers soon to be subjected to the fog of negative campaigning, the cautionary lesson is how easy it is to distort statistics. Check out everything you hear from both sides.

Steve Hansen writes about our life and times from his perspective of a retired Tucumcari journalist. Contact him at: stevenmhansen@plateautel.net

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