When the Story Tells the Numbers

2015-03-26T21:26:54+00:00 January 6th, 2015|

By G. M. Donley

Recent studies suggest that 73% of media stories are based on numerical ratings derived from third-party data sets. Indeed, 94% of Forbes.com online stories are top-10 charts, and while only 23% of browsers actually click through to read these stories, that 23% represents more than 89 million distinct users per week on average, with higher numbers in the month preceding major elections.

[blocktext align=”right”]There’s nothing like a few numbers to lend an air of scientific credibility to a story you want to tell.[/blocktext] There’s nothing like a few numbers to lend an air of scientific credibility to a story you want to tell. For example, all those figures and percentages cited in the previous paragraph were fabricated out of wild guesses in the two minutes it took to write those sentences. If the numbers seem plausible, that’s because in some measure they affirm certain biases the reader may be presumed to have.

Clearly, our number-cluttered media landscape is ripe for abuse by those who might wish to misuse quantitative data to push a particular agenda, and clearly that happens on a daily basis. But the average media consumer has developed a pretty good BS detector by now, so these blatant cases of statistical malpractice don’t cause as much damage as they might.

More significant harm is done when data are misinterpreted more subtly, shaped by the stories we already have in our heads about the way things are. A few examples of this are deeply relevant to stories of the Rust Belt in general — including discussion of property values and taxation, the assessment of school quality, and the tracking of trends in poverty rates — because questionable presentations of “data” relating to these topics have influenced people to tend toward certain decisions about where to live and how to invest.

A big topic of conversation around northeast Ohio is property taxes, and indeed people often cite tax rates as a motivation for moving from the city or inner ring towns to the outer suburbs. Media outlets habitually list property taxes as a number per $100,000 of property valuation, probably because it’s an easy number to get and it’s easy to make a chart that way. However, a lower property tax rate does not always — or even usually — mean a lower property tax bill for a home of a given size, because property is valued at different rates per square foot in different places.

That’s partially because you always pay a premium for something new. A new car costs considerably more than the exact same car bought 3 months old. In terms of property values, the newest construction generally has the highest cost per square foot. In the years that follow the property’s initial construction, the per-square-foot valuation decreases relative to new construction (or doesn’t appreciate as quickly). After a property has settled into its lifelong routine of older-house maintenance expenses (a new roof costs more or less the same whether the house is 40 years old or 100 years old), the value stabilizes and things besides age take on proportionately more significance in the value: the fine wood detail of a house from the 1920s might lift value relative to a newer house without such detail.

To illustrate, according to Trulia.com the average valuation per square foot of homes in the outer southeastern Cleveland suburb of Solon, mostly built since the 1960s, is $116. In closer-in University Heights, mostly built a couple of generations earlier, it’s $81. The Trulia.com numbers factor in the most recent county-assessed values as well as recent market activity — I’m not going to make a bar graph because the numbers are just estimates, but they do express the general relative differences in property assessment per square foot that one sees in these communities. Similar “data-cruncher” sites like Zillow and City-Data show similar patterns.

[blocktext align=”left”]In general, for housing of comparable quality, you’ll find higher tax rates in the older areas, but the house is more affordable in the first place.[/blocktext]The property tax rate in Solon is lower ($2,350 per $100,000 of valuation). But because the per-square-foot valuation is higher, that rate would work out to $2.73 per square foot annually. The property tax rate in University Heights is higher ($3,104 per $100,000) but the property itself costs less per square foot, so that rate works out to $2.51 per square foot annually. So, though your tax rate is lower in Solon, you’re likely paying the same or more property tax per square foot of house in Solon versus University Heights. (Note that the lot is probably bigger in Solon as well.) A 2,000-square-foot house in Solon would have an annual tax bill around $5,400 while a 2,000-square-foot-house in University Heights would be right around $5,000. In general, for housing of comparable quality, you’ll find higher tax rates in the older areas, but the house is more affordable in the first place. If it costs $5,000 a year or so per household to run schools, city services, etc., then that dollar amount comes either from a lower rate on a higher assessment or a higher rate on a lower assessment.

The age of the property isn’t the only factor in the per-square-foot valuation; so are the architecture and materials of the specific property and the desirability of the neighborhood to certain consumers. The predominantly blue-collar suburb of Maple Heights was built out in the decade after World War II, so it’s younger than University Heights, but the Trulia.com values in Maple Heights are now below $50 per square foot. Its tax rate is $2,600 per $100,000, so the 2,000-square foot house there would probably have an annual tax bill under $2,600.

But of course the people who say they are moving out of the closer-in places because the taxes are too high are not moving to places like Maple Heights, even though that’s where you would pay the lowest tax for a given house. That’s probably because much of the housing stock in Maple Heights was mass-produced for a blue-collar market: plain aluminum-sided bungalows around 1,000 square feet on small treeless lots. If you did sink a lot of money into upgrading a house, you would never get the investment back because that would put the house way above the price range of the neighborhood.

[blocktext align=”right”]If you live in University Heights and one motivation for considering a move is to reinforce to yourself and your peers a sense of “moving up,” Maple Heights probably doesn’t do it.[/blocktext] If you live in University Heights and one motivation for considering a move is to reinforce to yourself and your peers a sense of “moving up,” Maple Heights probably doesn’t do it. You’d be in a smaller house in a less gracious neighborhood with less convenience to the city, with a step down in prestige. No, you’d go to Solon, a place where entire neighborhoods were built specifically to attract people like you: solid middle-class folks who want something newer, bigger, and farther from the city, a place where you might even get a nod of approval for using the public schools. The mortgage might be a stretch, but the move is highly incented not just by the home mortgage tax deduction but also by new roads, new shopping areas, and city utilities already in place, and of course those alluringly lower tax rates (just don’t do the math too carefully). That’s been a powerful set of motivators for decades, both for buyers and developers, to the extent that the population of greater Cleveland has now spread over about twice the land area the same number of people occupied in 1950.

One effect of the more spread-out population has been to make public transportation impractical for the majority of residents: the rides to and from outer suburbs can take hours, and that’s if you can even get to the transit stop without a car. The only people who can really make public transit a viable option are those who live close to transit lines in the city and inner suburbs. While plenty of Cleveland-area residents choose to live in those closer-in places in order to have the option to get to work and other destinations via public transit, bicycle, or walking, there are others who have no choice: if you can’t afford a car or two, you simply can’t live anywhere that does not let you get to work, school, etc. without a car.

[blocktext align=”left”]…not only is housing in the outer suburbs beyond the financial reach of lower-income folks, but even if there were large amounts of affordable housing, many poorer families are prevented from living there by transportation issues.[/blocktext]What we have here (and in really in every place built up since the automobile became the prime mode of transport) is an exclusionary settlement pattern: not only is housing in the outer suburbs beyond the financial reach of lower-income folks, but even if there were large amounts of affordable housing, many poorer families are prevented from living there by transportation issues. When you look at poverty rates nationwide, you always find concentrations in big cities, and then you usually find the greatest concentrations of wealth right next door — often in neighboring counties. One analysis of that phenomenon would be that some people use their wealth advantage to buy distance from poverty within their economic regions. The people who can’t or don’t want to buy that distance stay where they are, often in neighborhoods that have a significant economic “low end.”

Whether it’s explicitly stated or not, the exclusivity is a big part of the reason the outer places were built in the first place, just as exclusivity was part of the initial reason for the original streetcar suburbs — get away from smoke and grit, yes; build something newer in a more spacious setting, yes; but also put some distance between the upper and middle classes and the lower classes.

Another effect of “editing” the residents to eliminate lower incomes is that the student population of the public schools is also edited. Everyone knows this when they move their family — which may be why many are predisposed to accept the state’s annual school district report cards that always label those outer suburban schools as the best performers.

[blocktext align=”right”]…the state report cards, instead of rewarding those kids who make up that deficit and the teachers and schools who help them do it, reward the outer suburban schools for not having those challenges in the first place.[/blocktext]Scientifically speaking, though, these report cards don’t so much show the effect of the schools on the students as they show the effect of the students on the schools. Everyone in the world knows that kids in poverty start out behind academically and have farther to go to reach the finish line, yet the state report cards, instead of rewarding those kids who make up that deficit and the teachers and schools who help them do it, reward the outer suburban schools for not having those challenges in the first place. The citizens’ interest in school systems is that students are prepared when they graduate from high school. If that goal is met, there really isn’t any need for comparative ratings of school districts at all. But people do love lists and rankings, so if you are going to make it a contest, at least make sure you’re rewarding the best performance.

[blocktext align=”left”]Kids who start out behind need more support, not less.[/blocktext]The valid way to measure school district effectiveness would be to track inputs vs. outputs: test a sample of students, then teach them, then test that same sample again and see what happened. Districts like Lakewood, Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, and some of the magnet schools in Cleveland take many kids who are far off the pace at the outset and catch them up, while providing advanced kids lots of challenge and headroom. If that’s not effectiveness, I don’t know what is. For all the elaborate charts and figures and ratings the state publishes, it doesn’t provide this one measure that would actually tell Ohioans which schools are making a difference. This is more than a little disconcerting coming from the folks who presume to evaluate our education system. It is an especially appalling lapse that the state has used the misleading report cards to justify financial penalties against schools that serve a lot of disadvantaged students. Kids who start out behind need more support, not less. Duh.

There are certainly a lot of people in Ohio who understand the scientific method, so why are such flawed measures allowed to stand? There are financial interests around new development, but it’s hard to imagine they would have much influence over educational assessment design or the ways in which newspapers present property tax comparisons. It’s possible that the sheer complexity and volume of data presented generates so much static in people’s heads that many just tune out. And it’s not uncommon for people to try to change the subject (evoke “failing schools” or “high taxes”) when the real problem (what to do about poverty) seems too hard to fix.

[blocktext align=”right”]…perhaps the most powerful reason people so readily accept these dubious numerical presentations is that these kinds of ratings confirm a story many people already believe.[/blocktext]But perhaps the most powerful reason people so readily accept these dubious numerical presentations is that these kinds of ratings confirm a story many people already believe. Just about everybody expects inner city students to fail. And people are always ready to believe that taxes are too high. That’s the story we expect and the numbers, presented as they are, just confirm it. Even people who bought their house for $120,000 less than it would cost in Solon complain about the higher tax rates in the inner rings. Even the students themselves can start to believe it after being told over and over and over that they don’t measure up and that their teachers don’t either.

But that wasn’t always the story. In the early part of the 2oth century, Cleveland’s public schools were considered among the nation’s best. There were no state report cards at that time, and the educational needs of the general populace were different then, so who knows what “nation’s best” really meant. Maybe all it signified was that these were the public schools of the unstoppable economic powerhouse that was Cleveland: it was self-evident that they were the best. But 100 years of changing economics and demographics changed the narrative of Cleveland: the land that once was home to nearly a million residents is now populated by many fewer people, and the buildings that remain are old — some of them old and great and worth preserving, and some of them just old. During that time span, the portion of the city’s population of middle and upper class steadily moved out of the central city, leaving behind predominantly low-income residents. At some point the story of Cleveland changed from that of a muscular progressive place to a city on the downslope from its heyday.

And, lo and behold, you can find numbers to back up that story, too! If you look at just the percentages, it appears that Cleveland has been an increasingly poor city over the past 50 years (indeed, we occasionally show up as one of the poorest cities in the US as measured by the percentage within the city limits who are below the poverty line, conjuring images of masses of poor folks flocking to Cleveland). But really, the term “increasingly” is misleading because the trend has not been caused by any real increases, but rather by decreases — fewer people, depreciating property values, and so on within the city limits. One reason the number looks that way is the Cleveland metro area is made up of dozens of municipalities, nearly all of which at the moment have higher per-capita income than Cleveland itself. The Columbus metro area, by comparison, is nearly all within the city limits of Columbus, including wealthy neighborhoods that are separate cities up in Cleveland. Franklin County and Cuyahoga County have identical poverty rates of 17.7%, but the city of Columbus’s poverty rate is 22% while Cleveland’s is 33.4%. That’s basically because places like Rocky River and Shaker Heights are not in Cleveland proper but the analogous neighborhoods in the Columbus metro are in the city of Columbus, and they pull the average income number up. Thus, no matter how destitute the poorest parts of Columbus got, Columbus would never be among America’s Poorest Cities. So what exactly does that poorest city ranking mean in a nation with such widely varying urban structures? It doesn’t mean much scientifically, but you can bet it means web hits!

[blocktext align=”left”]The most insidious thing about these various faulty measures is that they all seem to skew the same way: against the disadvantaged and in favor of the “haves” who already enjoy a leg up.[/blocktext]Too often, the media’s approach is not to thoughtfully analyze data until the numbers tell the story, but rather to tell the story they already have in mind that they think will sell papers or generate hits and then go find some numbers to support that narrative. The most insidious thing about these various faulty measures is that they all seem to skew the same way: against the disadvantaged and in favor of the “haves” who already enjoy a leg up. Why?

On paper, the United States is a meritocracy. But we all know that whether you get ahead also has a lot to do with what you inherit, on many levels: not just cash money, but other advantages such as living in a safe neighborhood, being supported and pushed in your education, being exposed to ideas and cultures that expand your world view, having reliable health care, and having access to transportation. There’s also an “invisible safety net” in the form of extended family who we know would be there just in case something didn’t pan out. On top of that, people still sort each other out by gender and skin color, they way they speak, where they come from, how tall or slim they are, and so on. All of it adds up to a set of supports that allow some people to confidently take more risks and aspire to greater achievements. And of course, sometimes you get ahead or are held back by dumb luck.

But since that doesn’t quite fit the meritocracy script, the concept gets subtly turned upside down: we take success itself as evidence of merit. And it follows that anyone who is less successful must be less worthy. The media reinforces this thinking by continually suggesting that the schools wealthier kids attend are the best, that smart and patriotic people live where the tax rates are lower, and that the old city is going down the toilet and deservedly so. These are all supporting bits of a narrative that rationalizes the advantage of the advantaged.

Sometimes the logical fallacy is pretty innocent: the CEO who worked extremely hard and sacrificed much to attain his position is likely to assume he merits his rank, and he’s not wrong — it’s just that many other people, just as smart and just as hard-working, do not have that rank. Other people more cynically take the attitude that tilting the playing field is part of how you should play the game: if you have advantages, you’re an idiot not to use them to try to skew the rules in your favor.

[blocktext align=”right”]Wouldn’t it be smarter to work together and make more and better pie?[/blocktext]If we’re interested in real progress for our region, we can’t afford to perpetuate wrong or misleading numbers, especially when a major result is that we build in huge waste in the use of money, space, and human beings. We may never eliminate poverty, but the least we can do is be fair to the folks who are trying to climb out of it. Fairness isn’t just a moral imperative; it’s the basis for a functioning market where the rewards for productive effort and innovation are equally available to all who are willing to work hard and apply their intelligence. At the regional scale, working smart means that we can’t afford to write off large portions of our citizenry as nonproductive and lacking potential. A lot of the old attitudes have to do with a vision of our economy as a pie of fixed or shrinking size, in which the goal is to defend our piece of it at the expense of the other people sharing the same pie. That’s a story based on fear, not creativity. Wouldn’t it be smarter to work together and make more and better pie?

[blocktext align=”left”]The narrative of decline has bottomed out; it’s time we stop looking backward and just move ahead.[/blocktext]The context in which we find ourselves is not unprecedented. In recent decades, the region as a whole has lagged relative to some areas of the country because we were so heavily invested in the infrastructure for a particular form of industrial economy that doesn’t exist anymore at the same scale. But that’s a limited-time thing. New England was deep into shipbuilding and leather and textiles, and it took a few generations for that region to retool after those industries faded in the late 1800s. That’s just what happens when you sink a lot of money and materials into buildings and ways of life built around particular industries: when those buildings or industries become obsolete, you’re stuck with a huge amount of built stuff that is no longer needed for its original use and a lot of people trained to do jobs they don’t have anymore, and it all adds up to a nasty post-boom hangover. But in a world with ever-growing population, it is absurd to think a region so blessed with natural resources, intellectual capital, and advantages of location could remain in population stagnation for long. Northeast Ohio has great bones, and the factors that made it a growth area a few generations ago are still here. The narrative of decline has bottomed out; it’s time we stop looking backward and just move ahead.

More interesting stories are already here: Cleveland combines big-city amenities with the livability of a smaller town. It’s got a diverse service sector, but is also still a place where people actually make stuff. It’s a community with wide ranging tastes, that appreciates high culture, grungy rock and roll, good food (plain or fancy), industrial buildings, that expansive lake, and the pretty countryside. It is populated by friendly but stubborn folks who can handle a bump in the road, who like a good laugh, and would rather work than whine. Take your pick.

Cleveland, like any city, isn’t just one place or one story. Rather, it’s a great, multilayered Robert Altman movie of overlapping and intertwining subplots. We have choices about which of those stories were are going to follow, and if we want to have a measure of control over our future, we’d be smart to get behind narratives that lead us to where we want to be, rather than accepting and repeating tired old storylines perpetuating decline, social exclusion, and economic cannibalism. Science is solidly behind this concept: a landmark study conducted by the Lawrence Peter Berra Institute more than 40 years ago quantitatively affirmed the effect of narrative trajectory on statistical outcomes, and the conclusion still holds true: “90% of the game is half mental.”

G. M. Donley is a Cleveland Heights-based writer, photographer, and designer.

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3 Comments

  1. Pam January 7, 2015 at 5:08 pm - Reply

    Wow. This is the best full-length article that I’ve read (all the way through) in a very long while. What you are talking about is such an integral part of the “divided community” discussions resulting from recent local events. As an inner-ring home owner and a Cleveland public school parent, I’ve never been able to put this into words. Thank you! This is an award worthy, truly relevant article and I hope the message spreads wide and far.

  2. ddr January 9, 2015 at 9:39 am - Reply

    Great article. I live in Cleveland Heights, and I’ll admit that our kids go to parochial schools. The reasons we chose to live in an inner ring suburb outweighed the higher taxes. We actually like having an older home and don’t mind paying more for its upkeep. We prefer to be closer to University Circle and downtown, rather than the freeways. We were wholly accepting of a diverse community. Still, we are concerned about the education system. While we applaud CH-UH for taking struggling kids and bringing them to a higher level, we look forward to a day when ALL children can learn at the same rate, regardless of income level or social background. The fact that some children have had a lousy start education-wise is appalling, and our school systems — as well as the parents of these children — need to do a better job starting them off on the right track so that they have a fighting chance and aren’t struggling in later years.

  3. Gordon Young January 9, 2015 at 10:06 am - Reply

    One of the best things I’ve ever read about the fate of Rust Belt cities. We are a nation that seems obsessed with measuring performance and progress, yet we often use methodology that does nothing but confirm our preconceptions. Thanks for writing this.

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