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Michigan’s poverty rate did not “soar 17%” from 2009 to 2014. (In fact, it was exactly the same.)

Edit 2, 12:30pm 12/5/15: lots of traffic to this post–welcome! You should also check out the comment thread on’s discussion of this post; his readers offer a lot of good thoughts on what good reporting of these data *could* look like, and questions that could be asked.  And, to be clear, my point in this post is not to state that things are hunky-dory in Michigan: comparing the Census’ 1-year data for 2014 (from ACS) to 1999 (from the y2k Census), we see that statewide poverty rates climbed from 10.5% to 16.2% in those 15 years. That 547,000 more Michigan residents were living in poverty last year than at the turn of the century is clearly cause for concern. My frustration comes because bad data reporting actually obscures and misleads us from the real picture, preventing us from actually digging in and figuring out what’s going on and how to address it. All of the following commentary doesn’t get into that work–it only serves to get us out of the data dead end and back to square 1, so that we have the chance to set off down the right path.

Yesterday was one of my favorite holidays of the year: New Census Data Day.  Just as Black Friday follows Thanksgiving, though, Bad Data Headlines Day inevitably follows as one of my least favorite days.

Michigan’s poverty rate soars as income drops even in economic rebound, census shows! screams the MLive headline, with lead paragraphs reading,

Median income in three out of every four Michigan cities and villages declined in the past five years, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau. At the same time, the share of people living in poverty rose in two-thirds of the state’s communities.

Statewide, more than one out of every six people are living in poverty, a 17 percent increase from the previous 5-year period. The median household income in Michigan from 2010-2014 was $49,087 per year – up a few hundred bucks from the 2005-2009 period, but when adjusted for inflation it’s down 8.7 percent during that time.

Of that, only the last sentence on household income is a clear and accurate explanation of the data; the rest ranges from misleading to flat wrong.

17% more poverty?!

First, the math issue that had people contacting me in some alarm.  From the wording of the article, they were led to believe that a net 17% of Michigan residents had newly fallen into poverty between 2009 and 2014–that if the poverty rate was, say, 10% in 2009, it must be 27% in 2014, because that’s a 17% increase.  (Of course, the statement “one out of every six” is actually only 16.7%, meaning this read of the 17% increase can’t possibly be right, unless the poverty rate was below zero in 2009–which suggests that “one out of every six” was not a useful way to state the current rate.)

In fact, the statewide poverty rate for the period 2010-2014 was only 16.9%, while the statewide poverty rate for the period 2005-2009 was 14.5%.  Since 16.9 is 16.55% larger than 14.5, it’s reasonably accurate to round it up to 17%–but confusing.  It’s like giving a weather report that, “It’s a chilly 35 degrees Fahrenheit out there right now, but the temperature is expected to rise by 7 degrees Celsius by lunchtime.”

Five-year periods

Any place the numbers “2014” and “2009” are used in these reports, they’re wrong. The new Census data is the 5-Year American Community Survey data for the period 2010-2014. These numbers are the result of surveys given over a 5-year period and rolled up (with some weightings) to create a statistically representative sample.

The Census Bureau’s pre-release webinar for media users explicitly states that the data “describe the average characteristics over a specific period of time, not a single point in time”.  (The webinar also states the 5-year data should be used when “No 1-year estimate is available”.  More on that in a minute.)

So what the data actually show is that, during the period 2010-2014, Michigan’s poverty rate was 16.9%, 2.4 percentage points higher than Michigan’s poverty rate of 14.5% during the period 2005-2009.

Those are big blocks of time.  In 2005, the housing boom was in turbo-mode and would be for sometime longer–and that’s averaged in with the 2009 depths of the recession.  Similarly, the “new” data covers a period from 2010–still on the economic rocks–to 2014.  This is not the right data to use to describe changes “in the past five years”, because that entire 5 year period is lumped together as a single data point.

So…do we know anything at all about poverty trends?

Sure.  Actually, much more useful data for this was released back in September, when the 1-year ACS numbers came out. While the 5-year ACS data covers areas down to the “block group” scale (around 1,000 people, as a rule of thumb), the 1-year data only covers areas of at least 60,000 people, in order to have statistically meaningful sample sizes. Fortunately, Michigan’s population is over 60,000 people, despite what decades of national press might lead one to believe.

Looking at the 1-year ACS numbers, Michigan’s poverty rate over time looks like this:

2005 - 13.2%
2006 - 13.5%
2007 - 14%
2008 - 14.4%
2009 - 16.2%
2010 - 16.8%
2011 - 17.5%
2012 - 17.4%
2013 - 17%
2014 - 16.2%

From these one-year numbers, you can see that Michigan’s poverty rate in 2014 was the same as in 2009, at 16.2%, and that the poverty rate peaked in 2011, dropping every year since.  These numbers also clearly show why the five-year bundle of 2005-2009 is a bad data point to use for “the recession”, and 2010-2014 a bad data point for “the recovery”.

So are these numbers good for anything?

If you want to use the 5-year ACS poverty numbers that newspapers are publishing for local communities, think of them as an over/under comparison–how has my community fared over the last 10 years compared to the state?

For example, the state’s inflation-adjusted median household income dropped 8.7% from the 2005-2009 period to the 2010-2014 period.  By contrast, the City of Ypsi’s inflation-adjusted median household income dropped 13.6% between those periods, while the City of Ann Arbor’s increased by 1%–another data point in our local tale of two cities.


edit, 12/5/15: Also, I didn’t get in to margin of error here–the Census Bureau does include that information in the ACS, and the DetNews’ database of poverty rates, the their credit, does include a column stating whether the change over time is significant or not.

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Letter to Ypsi Planning Commission re: Riverside neighborhood zoning

For context, Ypsilanti is in the process of a broad overhaul of its zoning ordinance, based on the new Shape Ypsi master plan.  It’s long overdue–parts of the ordinance date back (as best as I can tell) to the late 1960s and early 1970s, with 40 years of cruft built on those aged foundations, making it a confusing mess of cross-references and contradictions that were a PITA to administer.

There’s a ton of great stuff in the new ordinance text, though with a Planning Commission meeting tonight to review the draft zoning ordinance and zoning map after a serious of neighborhood informational meetings, most of the feedback I’ve seen has taken the form of, “No, my neighborhood needs to changed to a less intensive zoning category.”  Following is my input to the Commission in the other direction.


Ms. Gillotti, Ms. Wessler, and Planning Commissioners:

I am concerned to see that portions of my neighborhood (Riverside) have been changed from a “Core Neighborhood” designation to “CN-Mid” in the most recent proposed zoning map (dated Oct 13). While this designation is reasonable for many of the properties affected, it is the absolute minimum designation appropriate for the area, and I believe any further change to more restrictive designations in the Riverside area would be harmful to our neighborhood and to the larger community.

Please do NOT further restrict this area: Riverside needs zoning that supports the diverse, dense, urban neighborhood that it is now.


Richard Murphy

[address omitted]

More thoughts follow, if you want the long-winded version, numbered for convenience: [note: this WAS part of the original email, not just bloggy commentary]

  1. Diversity of housing stock:  I live in Riverside because I want to raise my kids in the diversity of age, race, class, and life situation offered by the neighborhood—a diversity that relies on having a broad range of housing styles and arrangements: neighborhood rentals allow new residents to fit into and find their place in the Ypsilanti community, in-house apartments provide options for people who don’t need (or want) the hassle and cost of house ownership, group living arrangements support those who, due to age or disability, cannot maintain a home of their own. Overly restrictive zoning threatens this neighborhood diversity by limiting available options.
  1. Density of residents:  I also want to raise my kids in a neighborhood that makes walking, biking, and transit use normal, with access to lots of local businesses and other destinations.  This value relies on a critical mass of residents both to raise drivers’ awareness of pedestrians and cyclists (safety in numbers) and to provide a customer base that serves as the foundation for local businesses (a recent economic impact study by the Michigan Main Streets program found that each “downtown” household contributes approximately $9,000 annually to downtown businesses).  A more restrictive zoning erodes both of these factors.
  1. Community integration of students:  Students are not an exception to the above points, but are particularly important to provide neighborhood options for.  EMU students are our best source of prospective long-term residents—a talent attraction pipeline that many communities would love to have–but giving them a reason to stay here after graduation requires giving them the option of being a part of our neighborhoods and our community, not just relegating them to campus housing or isolated apartment complexes. We need to plan for the inclusion of today’s students in order to create tomorrow’s homeowners, business owners, and civic leaders.
  1. Maintenance of properties:  Creating non-conformities discourages upkeep, by reducing the long-term value of properties, as well as by limiting their appeal to buyers.  By example, over the 8 years I’ve lived in this neighborhood, the most significant upgrades to properties have involved adding units to make the finances work: a 2- to 3-unit conversion on the 400-block of Perrin, a house-to-duplex conversion on the 400 block of Ballard, and Barry LaRue’s beautiful restoration and duplex conversion of 505 N Hamilton. By contrast, our visible vacant properties are those that were rendered non-conforming by unit count in 2006: the 4-plex on the 400 block of N. Hamilton that burned in 2008 and has not yet been renovated under the 1- and 2-unit zoning; the apparently stalled 3-to-2 unit conversion on 500 N. Hamilton.

I understand that some have offered potential nuisance concerns about some of the uses included in the CN district, but using zoning to address those concerns is the slowest and least effective tool in our arsenal, and brings collateral damage to our community equity, economic development, and quality of life. We have targeted tools of ordinance enforcement, rental property maintenance, historic preservation, and vacant and dangerous building regulation: let’s not risk what makes the neighborhood unique when we have better ways to resolve our concerns.

A line in the stats: gerrymandered crime reporting

This weekend, the Ann Arbor News offered a look “behind the numbers” at crime stats in the Ypsilanti area.  Their findings: crime is higher than state and national averages in the City of Ypsilanti, near or below averages in Superior Township and Ypsilanti Township.

Unfortunately, the story spends a lot of ink on the numbers itself–not necessarily a bad thing–with virtually no “behind” to be found.  The analysis of why a disparity might exist is limited to a vague quote from a city police officer that sums up to “I don’t know,”

Ypsilanti police Lt. Deric Gress attributed the higher crime rates to Ypsilanti’s urban nature, with an estimated 19,809 people living in four square miles, per the U.S. Census. “I don’t have a real reason we’d be higher than any others, other than being in an urban environment,” he said.

and some discussion of differential levels of community engagement, a discussion that uses a few anecdotes of positive engagement in areas like West Willow to generalize across the township, while generalizing that the city police have struggled in recent cases with a prevalent ‘No Snitching’ culture in the city.” This discussion ignores that the city’s police department started a community policing program like the one lauded in West Willow a decade ago, and the “uncooperative witness” factor, as far as I can tell, has been limited to a few shootings at a single housing complex.  (But it makes a good story, right?)

Coming up with some theories on the “why” behind the numbers isn’t that hard; here’s a couple, with some discussion:

  1. Ypsilanti is a college town.  College kids do dumb stuff, with some of that stuff being criminal and some of it leading to them being victims of crime. Consider these two graphs, the first from the City of Ypsilanti’s Master Plan, the second from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Arrest Data Analysis Tool (This is a thing.  Cool!)

    College town Ypsi has nearly 3 times the 18- to 24-year-olds of Ypsi Township or Michigan--an age bracket featuring prominently in Federal arrest statistics.

    College town Ypsi has nearly 3 times the 18- to 24-year-olds of Ypsi Township or Michigan–an age bracket featuring prominently in Federal arrest statistics.

  2. Ypsilanti has a lot of people living in poverty. Poverty exposes people to crime as well as making crime appealing, for lack of access to better opportunities.  As of the 2012 ACS, 28.8% of Ypsi City residents were living in poverty, compared to 16.3% of Michigan residents.  A quick literature search finds a 2011 paper from Justice Policy Journal, Does Age or Poverty Level Best Predict Criminal Arrest and Homicide Rates? A Preliminary Investigation, which finds that, “poverty … displays three to four times
    more explanatory power in predicting arrest rates and eight times more in predicting homicide death rates than does age”. (That is, teenagers are more likely to live in poverty than 40-year-olds, and it is their poverty, not their age, that is the best statistical predictor of their being arrested or murdered.)  I especially like this link for contradicting my first theory, leaving some work for the enterprising journalist!

There are policy implications of each of these hypothesis that we could dive into (and should! …in a future post), but the one I want to call attention to up front is Sheriff Clayton’s slicing and caveating of the data:

After Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton’s statements in July that the crime rate in eastern Washtenaw County is below the national and state crime rates, The Ann Arbor News analyzed crime rate statistics from 2008 to 2012 — the last five years available — from Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township and Superior Township, the three most populated areas of eastern Washtenaw County. …

On Thursday, Clayton clarified his statement, saying he was speaking about the areas the sheriff’s office is primarily responsible for, Ypsilanti and Superior townships.

“If you add in the city’s numbers, that’s what spikes it and when I’m talking (in the press conference), I’m talking about our area,” Clayton said. “When you take Superior and Ypsilanti Township, they are below the national rate.”

This whole “investigation” was sparked by a comment of Clayton’s, in which he has to draw a particular line–adding Superior Township to Ypsilanti Township, but carefully excluding the city that’s directly in the middle of that area–to bring his stats down below a target number. He’s not slicing by political jurisdiction, lest Ypsi Township look bad, nor by “community” in an identity sense of the word, because he’d have to include the city, but by what makes the numbers line up in his department’s favor.

If the standard by which we’re measuring crime prevention is how well somebody can draw creative lines to make the crime Somebody Else’s Problem, then we stand little chance of actually addressing it.

Ypsi as the value stock of Michigan?

It was recently suggested to me that my beloved Ypsilanti was “the most under-performing city in the state.” Hyperbole aside, they had a fair assessment:

You’ve got everything you’re supposed to have: two great little downtowns, historic neighborhoods, the river and the parks along it and the festivals, you’re a college town, and you’re  right next door to one of the biggest research universities in the country.  So what gives, why isn’t Ypsi thriving?

I offered a couple of themes, some of which (totally coincidentally?) may just make good topics for future posts.

  1. The public schools are on the wrong end of a collective action problem–though we’re seeing friends’ kids moving back into the public schools as they hit grade levels with new options, which gives hope for changing trends. (We’re only 4 short years from kindergarten ourselves, and would rather join an upward curve than start one.)
  2. Crime genuinely does happen here. You can avoid nearly all of it the same way you can anywhere–by avoiding things like the drug trade, bad romantic relationships, picking fights while intoxicated, being poor, or foolishly leaving electronics in front of open windows at night–but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem, both for the individuals it does strike and the community as a whole.
  3. We haven’t figured out how to deal honestly with our diversity of needs and goals. I see three major Ypsilantis: the Ypsi trying to be Ann Arbor’s newest enviable zip code (the Old East Side?), with kids playing in the sleepy, homeowner-filled neighborhoods; the college town Ypsi of students and recent grads, with all the attendant chaos and bustle; and the struggling factory town that hasn’t figured out how to replace 4,000 Ford jobs.
  4. Long grudges and old fears dominate many discussions: opinions are often formed not in the context of here and now, but on who is offering them, or on something that happened decades ago. For a community whose median resident was born in 1990, we hold the 1970s incredibly present in our policy conversations.
  5. Our ambitions seem too low. While some cities would find success simply in stemming their losses, and others might look on Plymouth or Chelsea as their goal, Ypsilanti would be selling itself short on the first–and ignoring, or expelling, many of our residents en route to the second.

It’s a thorny problem, and I have no pat solutions to offer. In this context, though, and considering the role of history in all of the other challenges, it will be interesting to watch our new mayor, who will be the youngest to take that office since George Goodman in 1972.