I stumbled across this money.cnn.com article showing a drastic difference in the median net worth between the races. The author calls particular attention to the differences between whites and blacks ($110,729 vs $4,955 respectively). To put that in tangible numbers, that’s the difference between a fairly nice mid-western house and a year lease on a U-Store It unit.
The data and the presentation are intended to elicit an emotional response. And it succeeds. But, I’m all about separating facts from emotion so let’s tear into what “median net worth” tells us.
The median of a set of data is a bit dodgy. Knowing the number that’s in the exact middle doesn’t necessarily give you a picture of the entire set of data. To get the median, you put the data in order (let’s say increasing left to right) and then find the number in the middle. Who said math was hard? What if every number to the left of the median value is 0 (zero (nada (zilch))), the median is 4,955, and then every number to the right of the median is a million-bajillion? The median really wouldn’t reflect any of that information. So the median without a mode (most repeated value) and a range (lowest and highest values) doesn’t paint a very detailed picture.
What is “net worth” really? Consider this: My brother and I both get a job and we both get paid a dollar a day. Every evening, he dutifully squirrels his crumpled and sweaty dollar away in a piggy bank that he keeps buried in the back yard and I invest mine in a combination of pizza and midget(x1) porn. At the end of the year I’ve got 0 dollars and I’ve gone blind from all the porn (mom tried to warn me) while my brother has 350 dollars. I had to steal 15 bucks to pay the North American Pride Association for Little Men and Women (NAPALM) for the right to use the word midget(x2). It costs $3 a pop.
What kind of information about our environment can you glean by looking at our—grammatically awkward— individual net worths? What does my net worth say about my neighborhood or how my employers treated me? What does it say about my brother? The only thing that’s for certain is my brother has some assets and I don’t. Comparing these assets over time could reveal some additional information about the economy—or the midget(x3) porn industry—perhaps, but we couldn’t honestly glean any useful sociological data that contrasts my brother’s life with mine. We could, however, investigate why I preferred midget(x4) porn over savings and the sociological ramifications of that decision (and perhaps someone should).
Median net worth, therefore, is a bogus foundation for an inequality case. I found even more fodder for this when I considered the income distribution stats from the U.S. Census. 65% of white people make over 50 thousand dollars per year whereas only 50% of black people fall into that category. There is obviously some disparity here and now the question of why blacks are earning less money becomes more immediately relevant (though not necessarily indicative of racism) and we are forced to look into that disparity. As for why this is more meaningful than “median net worth” consider that even though Asians had a net worth of roughly half that of whites, 70% of that population (5% higher than whites) makes 50 thousand dollars or more per year.
Midget(x5). Money well spent.