Behind numbers, issues that affect American workers

Public Editor

September 10, 2006|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

The Sun, like other newspapers, publishes dozens of articles that document and interpret economic statistics. With stories about unemployment, interest rates, consumer confidence and consumer spending, housing starts, new job creation, gross domestic product, debt levels and more, readers are inundated with information.

Not every economic indicator is relevant to every reader. But in my view, recent Sun articles about three new reports have served the public well by effectively tackling core issues that affect millions of American workers.

Reporter Kelly Brewington used the 2005 U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey's statistics for poverty to look at the differences in income for residents in Baltimore City and the other counties in The Sun's circulation area. Using the 10-mile stretch of U.S. 40 from West Baltimore to Ellicott City as a focal point, the Aug. 30 front-page article "State of haves and have-nots" broke down median household incomes and the percentage of those living in poverty in each county.

Not surprisingly there are huge differences - the biggest being Howard County's median income of $91,184 and 3.4 percent poverty level compared with Baltimore City's median income of $32,456 and 22.6 percent poverty level. The story also noted that Maryland as a whole has a median income of $61,592 and a poverty rate of 8.2 percent.

Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, gave Brewington an overall perspective: "Montgomery and Howard are the winners in this economy; the knowledge workers, the creative workers. And the lower-middle class and lower-income adults are the losers ... because they are facing job losses."

The one thing missing from the article was the 2005 census figures used to determine poverty. The number is $19,971 for a family of four and $9,973 for an individual. Including these parameters would have given readers better context for interpreting what the figures mean.

Readers had varied views on the article.

Kevin Ford said: "What do you expect from a city that has been ruled by liberal Democrats for over 40 years. ... If the people took a long hard look at who's running everything, maybe Maryland could truly be a state of `haves.' "

Paul Totaro saw it differently: "The Sun's article about the growing gap between `the haves and the have-nots' simply points to the fact that America is more a society of the wealthy than of the people."

Business columnist Jay Hancock recently examined employee salaries versus productivity ("New economy means stagnant pay for most workers") Sept. 3 and ("Stagnant doctor pay unhealthy for us, too") Aug. 27. Hancock reported on the Economic Policy Institute's recent report that real wages for most workers have declined since 2003, while productivity - the amount that an average worker produces in an hour - has risen steadily over the same period.

Hancock noted that the EPI is considered a "liberal" group, but he himself steers clear of any political or ideological taint. He correctly points out that the wage figures don't include benefits such as increased employer spending on medical insurance, which some economists believe has served as a de facto raise over the past several years. But Hancock reminded readers what most of us already know from experience - that the value of those benefits is negated by the soaring costs of health care.

His column about doctor salaries used recent data from the Medical Group Management Association to paint a picture of diminishing physician income. Hancock wrote: "This is probably not good. If anybody should be well paid - in absolute terms and compared with people of similar talent and education - it is those who keep us alive and well."

Because more doctors are leaving the profession, fewer top students are choosing it and a growing number of physicians are requiring supplemental payments from patients to make up for reduced compensation from Medicare and insurance companies, the situation has major long-term implications for us all.

A number of readers responded to Hancock's columns.

Ellis Easterly said: "You had a great column today on the lagging of wages behind corporate profits. And I greatly appreciated your column about doctor's incomes. Our internist/family doctor is feeling the pinch. For the last couple of years he has asked for an `administrative fee' to cover rising costs. ... Your columns touch on topics down where most of us folks live."

From business executive G.T. Rayburn: "Too often, we only share our thoughts on journalists who we feel miss the mark. I continually am impressed with Jay Hancock's savvy. He does solid research and cuts through the rhetoric that shows up in other articles in your paper. ... It may be the main reason I continue to subscribe."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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