In Cleveland, one of the nation’s largest cities, more than half of kids live below the poverty line. It’s a shocking statistic—a single data point pulled from a huge federal database.
It’s one I came across two years ago while covering health for The Plain Dealer, where I’ve worked for nine years. It’s changed the way I approach my job, resulting in long-term reporting on Infant mortality, asthma, lead poisoning and violence prevention.
Poor kids are sick kids, a fact backed up by a wealth of research. They’re sometimes sick emotionally—due to higher exposure to psychological trauma—and physically, with higher risks of chronic illnesses such as asthma, diabetes, and obesity.
Here’s another statistic: About 80 percent of the health of these children (and the rest of us, too) can be tied to the environment they grow up in, not to the medical care they receive. That means that kids who live down the street from the best health care institutions in the world can be some of the sickest, and most at risk for poor health as adults.
That’s the case in Cleveland, where neighborhoods surrounding the city’s world-class medical institutions are some of the poorest, with the highest rates of lead poisoning, infant mortality, asthma, and the lowest use of prenatal care.
I know these facts because of a lot of very smart people have spent years working out the connections between our health and where we live.
Data and its analysis in the health care realm is now widespread, from the simple use of electronic health records, to the use of large or complicated Big Data sets that combine different statistical sources to answer research questions. At their best, these pieces of information are invaluable tools for that big picture view of the world that’s impossible to assemble from our own experiences.
There’s United States Census data, analysis of that data by foundations such as The Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Book and Child Trends’ massive Data Bank. County, state, national health rankings. There’s the searchable and fascinating EJSCREEN mapping tool from the US Environmental Protection Agency, linking environmental and demographic data. And many more.
But all those numbers and the prospect of wading through them—Excel spreadsheets, pivot tables and the like—is frankly intimidating. Sometimes I find myself thinking ‘I’m a writer. It was my understanding there would be no math.’
Here’s what I keep reminding myself: Each data point can be traced back to a person, a conversation, a doctor’s visit, or the specific and very personal geography of a neighborhood.
Who are the Cleveland kids behind that jarring census statistic? They’re siblings like Beautifull Foster, Gorgeous Lloyd, and Tito Lloyd Jr., who all have asthma. Or Unique Shepherd’s baby girl, born when her mother was homeless and sleeping on a leaking air mattress on the floor of a foreclosed home in a neighborhood with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the city.
They are also kids like Najaveon Dunlap, poisoned by lead paint chips in his Cleveland home at the age of two. Or Haneen Alwaeli, a refugee child hospitalized with life-threatening levels of lead in her blood.
Data is faceless, and easy to ignore, but children like these are impossible to forget. They are real; Beautifull wants to be a forensic scientist and her little sister dreams of being a pediatrician. Haneen has liquid black eyes and warms up easily to strangers, despite her shaky English.
Used well, data reveals important truths about ourselves and our world, but it’s often only a jumping off point for the real work of the journalists—the storytelling that introduces us to the human nuance behind statistics and digs into the why of what we observe around us.
As income inequality, residential segregation, and even political polarization increasingly divide and homogenize our individual human experience, that work is perhaps more vital now than it has ever been.