A nation divided must unite on facts

A nation divided must unite on facts
© Getty Images

“With a strong economy, middle class households are earning more.” “Opioid and other drug overdose fatalities are now among our leading causes of death.” “Our prison populations are increasing.” You knew all that. You may remember when you read or heard about these trends.

But none of them are true. This is not a slam on journalists, our politicians, or your social media feed, and to be clear, we made the statements up. But do these assertions sound like something you have heard? Weaving together snippets of information, it is just human nature to draw larger conclusions or to not seek an update on a previously researched issue.


Using official government data, the only kind we use at USAFacts, we see clearly that the assumptions stated above are wrong. In fact, while the economy is growing, the middle 20 percent of households in the country are making 9 percent less than they earned in 2000. That is due in part because more people are now living alone in the United States, and more are divorced, so median household income is based on fewer earners.

On the horrifying opioid epidemic, drug overdose deaths have spiked alarmingly in the last few years but comprise less than 1 percent of deaths. That means drug overdose deaths do not even make the list of the top 10 causes of death. Heart disease took 14 times as many lives in 2017. When it comes to prisons, incarceration rates are falling across all races, yet black Americans, who comprise only 12 percent of the United States population, make up 27 percent of all arrests and 33 percent of all those incarcerated.

Those are the plain facts. They may inspire dramatically different policy prescriptions, based on your age, race, gender, partisan affiliation, level of affluence, place of residence, source of news, or multiple other factors. But debates on solutions to our most pressing issues should begin with facts. At a time when the most basic facts of public life are subject to dispute, this common understanding is now more important than ever.

Government data is not always easy to find, is often hard to read or put in context, and in some cases is a few years out of date. USAFacts was founded two years ago to report the numbers on how the government collects and spends money on behalf of Americans and to help them determine the extent to which that investment leads to a better quality of life. Our 2019 annual report on the official numbers was released today.

The most recent data tell us our federal, state, and local governments collected $5.1 trillion and spent $5.9 trillion, which equates to $15,778 in revenue collected and $18,114 spent for every person living in the country. Since the federal government is only one of 90,000 governments in the country, USAFacts combines federal, state, and local governments to see actual spending on health care or schools for the results we are getting.

Our annual report focuses on who lives in the United States and the quality of their lives. Who is born here? Who moves here? Who goes to college? Who starts families and careers? Who stays healthy or gets sick? Who lives in affluence or poverty or in between? Who is growing old?

These numbers represent our families, our neighbors, our communities, and ourselves. They show us where we are making progress in areas such as education, where nearly 70 percent of students graduating high school in 2017 attended college, up more than 20 points since 1980. They also us show where we are falling back in areas such as homeownership, which has decreased five points over the past decade to 64 percent in 2016.

As we move forward and continue to choose leaders who make the important decisions about how to spend our money and manage our nation, we need to understand how our country is changing and how those changes impact the policies we pursue. Democracy demands it.

Steve Ballmer, former chief executive officer of Microsoft, is the founder of USAFacts. Poppy MacDonald, former president of Politico, is the president of USAFacts. The organization offers a detailed view of government data.