Charts help: Economic data by the numbers

Friday, April 15th, 2011 

Since the rise of interactive data visualizations, the dismal science has become decidedly less dismal. Economists are still painting a pretty grim picture of the American economy, but at least the statistics are easy to understand and interpret, thanks to a series of stellar new websites.

The sites below lay out issues of income inequality and economic security, using clear and simple charts and graphics. With varying degrees of interactivity, these online tools let Americans get a sense of how we’ve arrived in the state we’re in.

Here at What Went Wrong, we're working on adding narrative and characters to some of the data compiled by the esteemed economists and policy wonks at these organizations.

Mapping the Measure of America

This site features state-by-state maps for a range of economic and social indicators. You can explore three indexes, with numbers on income, health and education. Each index includes parsed-out detailed data, like the number of marginally attached workers, food insecure households or per-pupil spending. You can also check out the data broken down by sex and/or race, a section that here includes Native Americans, a group often excluded from such analyses.

It’s the companion site for a book by the American Human Development Project, called The Measure of America 2010-2011: Mapping Risks and Resiliance. The report, written by Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kirsten Lewis, is a project of the Social Science Research Council.

Economic Security Index

This site charts rising economic insecurity, giving hard numbers to the looming sense most Americans have that formerly solid ground may give way at any moment. The authors of the site, and its accompanying report, spent years calculating a measure they call the Economic Security Index, which “measures the share of Americans who experience a major drop in their available family income — whether due to a decline in income or a spike in medical spending — and who lack an adequate financial safety net to catch them when they fall.” In other words, their data and charts show how, over time, Americans have lost substantial percentages of their income, making it much harder to recover from unforeseen (but not unusual) events. Their timelines can be broken down by age, race, education level, and gender, which means you can compare the insecurity of, say, Black women with a college education with the average of all Americans.

In July 2010, the Index authors summarized the key findings (pdf) from the index and followed up in December 2010 with Shaky Ground (pdf), a look at Americans’ experiences with economic insecurity. One fascinating finding of the latter report: people who experience one economic “shock” often experience several more shocks after that. As the authors note, “Americans’ lives are not simply disrupted by the occasional unfortunate happenstance. Many experience a series of economic shocks, the combined impact of which is much larger than any of the individual shocks. When economic shocks both cluster and persist, the lives of even the most prudent and careful households can be deeply disrupted and those households’ expectations for the future can be profoundly unsettled.”

State of Working America

The State of Working America is the old kid on this block. The report has been published since 1988, by the Economic Policy Institute. This year, they’ve made some telling charts, illustrating things like how economic growth goes disproportionately to the wealthiest Americans and how household wealth breaks down by race. Most of the charts are static, not interactive, but still extremely clear and useful. They also let you download the spreadsheets they use to create their charts, so if you really want interactivity, you can build it yourself.

And of course, we have to shout out the charts on income inequality created by the folks at Mother Jones. Even though literally millions of people have already looked at them.

What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.


Back Story

The authors talk about What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele talk about the project, and why they decided to revisit a book they wrote two decades ago, in a series of video clips produced by the Workshop.

Nation's Story

Who pays the taxes?

Who pays the taxes?

We feature charts, maps, photos and other visualizations that reflect the state of the economy as part of our What Went Wrong project. This column chart shows the growing disparity between what individuals and corporations pay in taxes. In the 1950s, the difference was 22 percent. Recent figures show the difference is 62 percent.

Rags to rags: Economic mobility hard to come by

New Pew Center on States report confirms that moving up the American economic ladder is difficult, even though most people have more income than their parents.

Homelessness takes it toll on Florida's youngest

Florida, as a center of the housing boom, still struggles to recover from the Great Recession. Financial stresses and widespread foreclosures have placed families in precarious situations, resulting in a spike in child homelessness. Susannah Nesmith reports in the Broward Bulldog.

Older workers face challenges in Silicon Valley

An advanced degree and experience in the tech sector should be a ticket to a job in today's economy. But older workers in the heart of the new economy, Silicon Valley, are finding their resume is not the issue. Aaron Glantz reports in The Bay Citizen.

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Read an Excerpt

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.