Politics & Policy

Investigating Income Numbers

Face the face-value facts.

When most of us look at income statistics, we are not just being numbers junkies. We want to find out something about actual flesh-and-blood human beings — specifically what their standard of living is like.

But you cannot always just take statistics at face value — or, worse yet, with the spin that politicians and the media put on them.

Income, for example, is not the same as earnings, and neither is the same as the economic resources on which people’s standard of living is based.

Since most of us get our income by earning it, it might seem that any difference between income and earnings would just be some technicality that only economists or accountants would bother with.

In reality, the difference can be huge, depending on the income bracket and the age of the individual.

Most of the income received by people 65 years old and up is not counted statistically as earnings. Only 24 percent of their incomes are earnings. Most of their incomes are from pensions or other sources known as “unearned income,” such as returns on investments.

It should hardly be surprising that people who have been around a long time would have accumulated more money in the bank and maybe have a little nest egg in a mutual fund, each of which provides a stream of income during their retirement years, even if that income does not get counted as earnings.

Despite a drumbeat of political rhetoric depicting the elderly as being in dire economic conditions, the actual incomes of the elderly are more than four times what their earnings statistics might suggest — or what politicians can claim, citing those statistics.

When it comes to wealth, the average net worth of people 65 years old and up is several times that of people under the age of 45. The highest average net worth in any age bracket belongs to households headed by people aged 70 to 74.

Although income is often confused with wealth, as when people currently in high income brackets are referred to as “rich,” the elderly average lower income than middle-aged people, but more wealth.

Since 80 percent of the people who are 65 and up are either homeowners or home buyers, their housing costs tend to be lower. Among those 80 percent, their median monthly housing costs in 2001 averaged just $339 a month.

That includes property taxes, utilities, maintenance costs, condominium, and association costs for people with such living arrangements, and mortgage payments for those who do not own their homes outright.

There are of course some elderly people who are poor, just as there are some poor people in every age bracket. But statistics cited by politicians, journalists, and others who inflate the number of the poor need both scrutiny and skepticism.

The elderly are not the only people whose standard of living is grossly understated by those who cite statistics on earnings or income.

Those statistics do not include income received by low-income people as transfer payments from the government, such as welfare checks, much less various in-kind transfers, such as subsidized housing and subsidized medical care.

As of 2001, about 78 percent of the economic resources used by people in the bottom 20 percent of income recipients were in the form of either cash transfers or in-kind transfers.

To judge the standard of living of low-income people by income statistics is to leave out more than three-quarters of the economic resources used by them.

It is understandable that those who have either a political or an ideological vested interest in exaggerating the numbers of “the poor” would use statistics that greatly understate the standard of living of low-income people, as well as that of the elderly.

But that is all the more reason for the rest of us to be aware of what statistics do and do not mean — and beware of those who want us to believe the worst, whether for their own political advantage or because that fits their ideological vision.


Thomas SowellThomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author, whose books include Basic Economics. He is currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.


The Latest