Tag Archive for measures

Making it real

Photo by Al Clayton

Although we emphasize use of numbers and data on this site, it’s important to not lose perspective.

Numbers are summaries of different kinds of realities. What we care about will always be the human beings who are summarized by those numbers.

Reporters live for those interviews with a quotable source, and stories with photos of vivid faces will draw people in. The right person can make the whole story sing.

But I love crunching numbers and digging up data, too. For me, each complements the other.

I like numbers because:

+They give us a way to draw a bigger picture – to show trends that give meaning to individual stories. Numbers work in tandem with human stories; one supports the other. A feature story about an individual can be an interesting read, but without a larger context, that individual can be dismissed as an oddball or an exception.

+Conversely, they can help us find the local angle in a national story. You might think that those policy debates in DC are just too hard to get a handle on, but if you drill down on the data, you’ll find out exactly how they affect your county. Read more

How to measure the gap in your area


Photo by Al Clayton

Measuring the gap between the richest and poorest in your community is surprisingly easy, thanks to the Census Bureau’s American FactFinder.

Find the answers to these questions to see how this issue looks in your community:

+How does your community compare to the state and nation in its overall inequality of income?

+What percentage of the total income was earned by the top 20 percent? The top 5 percent?

+What percentage of your community is under the official poverty line? What percentage have incomes of more than $100,000?

For all three of the statistical measures described here, start from the American Fact Finder section of the US Census Bureau website: http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml

You don’t need to wait for a census once in a decade to get good, local data. All of the measures are based on the American Community Survey, or ACS. This is detailed information collected from a national survey every year, since 2006. Read more

Quick Census tables

A quick comparison of four North Georgia counties

If you need Census data about income and poverty for your county or for a select group of counties, but don’t want to download entire tables (as we show in another post), you can make your own table very quickly.

Start from http://www.census.gov/did/www/saipe/county.html and choose the year and the state.

On the next page, select one or more counties, as well as the state and US for comparison, by holding down the control / command key as you click your selections.

You can choose from several basic fields of information about poverty, such as median household income and percent in poverty.

Voila! An easy comparison that you can use to make a quick chart.


Stimulus project on ProPublica

ProPublica offers a quick summary and comparison

ProPublica, a nonprofit reporting organization, created a special project to track the stimulus money. The result is a very user-friendly place to do research and comparisons.

[To understand more about the ProPublica methodology in assembling and cleaning the data, there is an explainer about that here.]

Start with the ProPublica recovery page: http://projects.propublica.org/recovery/

The information is framed in the way that a reporter or citizen might think about it: basic questions of “How much did we get?” and “Did we get a fair share?”

You can define “we” down to the level of a county.

The very first page is a table that allows you to immediately see how much per capita your state received. Read more

But what about the jobs?

The Recovery Act, like many economic development packages, was touted as a way to create jobs. But accurate and current figures about the number of jobs are nearly impossible to calculate except at a very local level.

The reason is that there are no cumulative reports about the number of jobs created under the stimulus. Even the quarterly reports are misleading.

From the day an award is announced, the recipients are required to report on the progress of the work and the number of jobs funded.

Read more

Tracking stimulus money on Recovery.gov


The federal government set up a monitoring agency to track the stimulus, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, and it created the website Recovery.gov, focused just on stimulus money.

Because Recovery.gov is official, and specific to stimulus money, you might feel that it’s the best source of data on this topic. It is a user-friendly site, allowing easy ways to search by Zip code and county, as well as using map-based searches.

However, this site only includes stimulus spending at the level that required federal reporting. Individual recipients, such as student loans, do not have to report, for privacy reasons. [More information about student loans and Pell grants are on the Department of Education website.]

Awards of less than $25,000 do not require reports, a common threshold intended to reduce federal paperwork. You should let your audience know about this omission when reporting these numbers.

And the Recovery.gov site only gives national numbers for money spent on entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and unemployment, and for tax credits and incentives. The idea was that those expenditures did not create jobs directly, the way that contracts and grants did.

To get some of these numbers, you’ll need to go to ProPublica (in our next post).

Read more

Measuring the stimulus

How the money moves / Recovery.gov


Under the Recovery Act, better known as the federal stimulus, the government has spent about $540 billion so far in direct grants and entitlements, and another $300 billion in tax benefits. Yet, down at the street level, many people would be hard-pressed to say where they’ve seen this spending in their community.

To report on how stimulus money affected your market area, start by getting an overview of the local data. Learning how to navigate and use the resources will help you with many kinds of reporting about how federal money is spent at the local level.

There are three major sources – two from the government, Recovery.gov and USASpending.gov, and one from a nonprofit, ProPublica.org. You can also get further information from your state’s site on stimulus spending.

ProPublica was specifically designed for ease of use by reporters and citizens. However, because each of the three sites has advantages and disadvantages, to gain accuracy and completeness you might want to use all three and compare.

We’ll do posts on each of these to show you in more detail how to get and use the numbers you need.

But keep in mind the advice of Sarah Cohen (Duke University) in her 2010 IRE webinar about the stimulus: “DON’T try to do an accounting of the money. You’ll go crazy. DON’T force everything to add up. It won’t. … DON’T depend on employment estimates – they’re really bad.”

Start with some basic measures of where and to whom that stimulus money went, and let the story ideas emerge from there:

+How much recovery money in total flowed to your state? to your county?

+Who were the biggest recipients?

+How much went to loans for businesses? How much to state agencies? How much to contractors? How much to direct assistance?

Questions about job creation are a special case, and we’ll have a post about that.

The three major sources for data about how stimulus money is being spent:

Read more

How to measure giving in your community

Data from NCCS tables / IRS Master File Dec 2011

Americans are known for their generosity. We give away billions of dollars every year to causes we believe in.

But where does that money go? What causes are served? And how well do our donations meet the needs of our communities?

The National Center for Charitable Statistics offers several ways to gather data about charitable giving, at both national and local levels.

To measure the significance of charitable giving in your community, use NCCS to answer the following questions for your market area.

  1. What percentage of Adjusted Gross Income is given in charitable donations in your county or state?
  2. What is the total revenue per capita for charitable organizations?
  3. How does the revenue per capita compare among different types of charities – e.g., human services and health compared to education, arts and culture, or other categories?
  4. How is the total revenue pie divided among these categories of charities?
  5. What is the number of total public charities per 10,000 people in your county? How does that break down by category?
To take this further, you could also rank the counties of your state in terms of these “generosity” and “direct service” measures. Where does yours stand?

Start with this link to view state and local data – select only a location to get the totals: http://nccsdataweb.urban.org/PubApps/geoSearch.php

In the results of a search by state or county, the second section summarizes “Community Needs” (according to the 2000 Census). Then, under the “Community Resources” section of the Overview results, you will see Read more

Using the Ruling Date

This helpful background is from the National Center for Charitable Statistics

Using the Ruling Date (RULEDATE) for Research

The IRS Business Master Files include a field (RULEDATE) indicating when registered nonprofit organizations obtained formal recognition of their tax exempt status by the IRS. (In other words, when the IRS approved their applications for exempt status.) NCCS typically uses this as a proxy for when an organization was created. However, one should understand its origins and flaws before determining how best to use it in one’s research.

Limitations are of two types:

– Nonprofit corporations — the majority of organizations — must incorporate before they register with the IRS. This could occur at more or less the same time as they file with the IRS, but may also occur a year or more earlier. (Incorporation is handled by state governments.) Moreover, some organizations begin informally without any formal legal structure. Thus, depending on one’s definition of “founding,” the ruling date may or may not be adequate as a proxy.

– Prior to the 1960s, IRS nonprofit information was maintained in paper form only and recording of ruling dates appears to be spotty.


Lists of nonprofits: What’s the difference?

When I was comparing the three major sources of info about nonprofits, I found that there were many organizations which were in MelissaData and GuideStar but were NOT in the IRS lists of exempt or revoked organizations.

But that doesn’t mean they are not legitimate.

An organization’s nonprofit status is different than its tax-exempt status. A nonprofit Read more