Statistics Disguise a Human Face

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), February 15, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Statistics Disguise a Human Face


Byline: Paul Neville / The Register-Guard

When did we become a nation of statistics?

Every day our newspapers and television news broadcasts are stuffed with statistics on crime, the economy, mental illness, hunger, war, unemployment, poverty, schools, child abuse and homelessess. Statistics and more statistics, all of which blur into one grim, endless, faceless equation.

I've found myself thinking about statistics - and their limitations - as I read about the probable impacts of Measure 30's defeat in Oregon. The stories are laced with numbers: Rural school districts face double-digit budget cuts; 50,000 Oregonians may lose all medical coverage; 125,000 may lose mental health and addiction services.

None of this seems to mean much to people any more - unless they're statistics themselves. That's due partly to understandable cynicism; Oregonians have been warned of budget cuts before, only to see them blunted by inventive, desperate state lawmakers.

But I believe that the numbers themselves have flat worn out a lot of folks. We've become hardened to them. Every day we are force-fed statistics, not only on the state's chronic budget woes but on national and international issues.

While I'm as weary of the barrage as anyone, it's impossible for me to shrug them aside. After nearly three decades in journalism, the numbers aren't numbers any more. They're people: the distraught father whose child just became a homicide statistic; the demoralized but determined single mom who is a jobless statistic; the newly uninsured and frightened middle-age schizophrenic who is a health-care statistic.

As a reporter, I was once assigned to ``put a face'' on a story about a statistical spike in homelessness. I drove to a local emergency shelter and found a family of seven living in a studio apartment. It was overflowing with mattresses, clothes, groceries and kids. The oldest child was teenage girl. Her mother proudly informed me that she was an honors student in high school.

I remember walking with this girl to catch a bus that would take her across town to her school. After promising that I would not use her name, she confided some of the elaborate precautions she had taken so that no one would find out that she was homeless. They included using baby-sitting money to buy just enough clothes that her friends wouldn't suspect her family's situation, and always arranging to meet her friends at their homes, sporting events, the movie theater - anywhere but the emergency shelter where she lived.

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