Comparing apples to apples

The following was submitted to the Sun for publication earlier this week but I haven’t heard if it will be published so I’m posting it here anyway.

The Bermuda Sun recently reported a number of rather startling statistics on income disparities between the races.  Quoting data from the Statistic Department’s 2009 Employment Brief they suggest that “White Bermudian 'clerks', for example, make $8,000 a year more than black Bermudian clerks.”  Undoubtedly this statistic is shocking and dismaying and only more startling than the statistic itself is the realization that it isn’t painting a fair picture.

To be clear there is no argument on the part of this writer that racism does not play a factor and that there is likely a disparity in pay between the races, however that does not justify misinterpretations of statistics that skew the perception of the problem in favor of one side or another.

Let us start our examination of the above statistic by taking a look at the earnings range of clerks.  According to table 20 on page 16 of the 2008 Employment Brief Tabulations data there were 5763 individuals considered under the ‘Clerks’ major occupation group.  Of these individuals, 78 were listed as earning an annual salary of under $6000 and 3 were listed as earning between $235,000 and $349,000 with the remainder falling in between.  Just to get the true scope of the distribution, let’s look at it in chart form.

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Note the rather wide distribution in salaries.  The question you may be asking yourself is how one clerk can make so little while another can make so much.  The answer lies in the definition of ‘clerk’ which represents a major occupational group of unskilled clerks all the way to highly skilled clerks who perform advanced research in complex topics.   Indeed, the 2000 Census even classifies ‘Government Executive Officials’ and ‘Cashiers ‘ in the clerical role. Thus comparing one random clerk to another is not a simple apples to apples comparison. 

Now, another question to ask yourself, how likely is a cashier to have a doctorate degree?  If you agree that it is quite unlikely then you may also agree that education level plays a factor in what kind of job you end up with and the subsequent range of pay you can expect to receive.  Indeed we can look to the 2000 Census to confirm that the higher your education level, the more you can expect to earn on a median basis.

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We can now see clear evidence that education level matters greatly in terms of earnings potential so now let us examine data available from the 2000 census on academic attainment by race.  To make the data easier to interpret let us simply compare percentage distributions from the data compiled for Bermudian population aged 16 years and over by highest academic qualification by race, which is available via table 2 on page 50 of the 2000 Census.

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We can note via this chart that a much higher percentage of white Bermudians in the year 2000 had degrees than black Bermudians, who had the highest percentage of no qualifications.  While the classifications unfortunately do not exactly match the detailed breakdowns above, this was the best picture available by Bermudian status.  If considering non Bermudian status we can see the full breakdown via data from figure 4.3 on page 129 of the 2000 Census.

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The sad reality that we face is that white Bermudians are more likely to hold a higher level of education and thus are more likely to earn more.  This subsequently explains why they would outpace black Bermudians in the ‘clerks’ occupational category along with many other wide reaching major occupational group.  While indeed racism is a factor that should be considered and examined we unfortunately do not have the statistical depth to get a true picture of the problem.  Indeed, to truly compare apples to apples we need to break down jobs by Bermudian status, race, academic qualification, field of qualification, pay, experience level and even institutions attended.  Even then we are forced to make approximations to make comparisons as no two people are exactly alike.  Regardless it is important that we take the time to fully understand the statistics we’re dealing with so we can fully appreciate the problem and hopefully determine its true cause.

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