NEW YORK (AP) -- While it was a wonderfully encouraging report, the latest Census Bureau report on American household income includes plenty of shrapnel for political exploitation.
The poverty rate fell to 11.8 percent of the population; yes, but it was lower in 1979. The fastest rise of incomes was in the poorest fifth of the population; yes, but income inequality rose.
You can have it both ways with statistics, which is one of their weaknesses.
Depending upon what you seek to prove, you can speak in percentages or in dollars. A 5.4 percent rise among the poorest tops the 3.9 percent among the richest. But in dollars, the biggest gains still were made by the top 20 percent.
And you can break down those percentages into categories that, depending on how they are used, tend to tell a different story.
Overall, household income rose to $40,800, but for African-American families it was only $27,910. Population statistics show more women employed than ever before, but Census figures show they still don't earn as much as men.
The significance of breakdowns can be raised or lowered in support of a certain point of view, especially in political campaigns designed to make much of memorable little bits of data.
In exploiting data, however, it is easy to lose sight of the significant evidence, which is that the economic gains of recent years have benefitted more people than ever before in history.
Much is likely to be made of income inequality, and it is true that there are enormous differences in paychecks. But inequality is all but foreordained in statistics: Some will be rich, some poor.
It doesn't, however, mean that today's poor are tomorrow's also. Various studies show that many of those who occupied the category in 1990, for example, are in higher categories today.
Enough, in fact, to question the current usage of the term "inequality."
You might even say that almost all Americans are victims of income inequality in comparison to the take-home pay of professional athletes, entertainers, securities brokers and litigators.
And, of course, in relation to what many people consider the disgracefully high incomes, earned or unearned, of many corporate chiefs. This is where the income gap has turned wild and wide.
In their defense, however, some of these corporate chiefs have been directly responsible for the creation of thousands of jobs, rising incomes and products that improve the quality of life.
And, of course, they're responsible also for some of those stock market profits that weren't counted in the Census figures. Directly or indirectly, such as through pension plans, the majority of households have a slice of the stock market, and the percentage is growing.
The household income picture, a work in progress, is a long way from achieving perfection. But at least the emerging scene is brighter than it has been, and it is headed in the right direction.
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