Census numbers won’t tell the ‘real people’ story

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The United States is in the throes of conducting its census. This once-per-decade counting provides some interesting perspectives on where this country is, where it’s been and where it’s going.

But there is a downside to the data collected by the census and used by media and government officials to support pet programs. Many of the mis-perceptions that are created from the census data are due to confusion between statistical categories and real people.

For example, lately we’ve been overwhelmed with information about the state of health care in our nation. We are told that there is something like 30 million “uninsured Americans.” That may well be, but let’s examine who these people really are.

If you asked me today who I know that does not have health insurance I would have to admit that I don’t know a single person. However, if you had asked me that question 30 years ago I would have been able to point to each of my neighbors, and I would have included myself. You see, 30 years ago I was a graduate student living in a housing complex with many other graduate students and their families. Each of us was subsisting on exceedingly limited funds, and we had to make some crucial choices about how to use those funds.

As graduate students, we were committing ourselves to becoming experts in a profession. Thus, most of our scarce dollars were invested in books, tuition, laboratory materials, and other things. Many of us chose to risk foregoing health coverage so that we could invest in our futures instead. Today, I confess to having lost track of most of those who lived nearby in graduate school. Still, I would bet that most of them are now gainfully employed and fully insured.

The point is, using a statistical category like “the uninsured” does not tell the whole story. I was in that category at one time, but invested wisely enough to find a way out. One of the major incentives that drove me in graduate school was the desire to develop my talents sufficiently to be able to provide for my family. Believe me, the days without health insurance were not fun, but the motivation to put that state of affairs behind me was incredible.

Another statistical classification that is often used to justify government programs is the purported growing gap between “the rich” and “the poor.” But who are these people really? Most of the people of low income and making minimum wage in this country are young people between the ages of 16 and 24. But, of course, real people don’t stay 16 to 24 forever. They grow up, get jobs, invest, and start companies. Thus, the growing gap that is used to justify more and more government intervention, such as minimum wage, could also be conceived as an incentive to work harder.

There are very few people in this country who are chronically trapped in an economic class or other statistical category. Our society is one of the most transitory on the planet, and provides opportunities for improvement to people in nearly every walk of life.

For those unfortunate enough to have debilitating handicaps or other conditions that prevent upward mobility the existing social safety net in America seems to provide adequate, if not exactly luxurious, living conditions. Even the poorest among us can enjoy heated homes, a car, color television, and, yes, health care.

America has been the land of opportunity for generations of people. Legions of immigrants from Europe, Latin America, the Baltics, and Southeast Asia came to America to pursue their dreams of assimilation. To many immigrants a dangerous trip to the land called “America” promised a better life where the streets were “paved with gold”.

We should not be beguiled by statistical categories indicating inequalities in our midst.

America built its incredible wealth on the backs of people yearning to lift themselves from one statistical category to another. An unintended consequence of their individual strivings is that they also lifted an entire nation.

Thomas N. Duening Ph.D. is director of the Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Business and Administration at UCCS. He can be reached at tduening@uccs.edu.