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2016 Explanatory Reporting, Large Newsroom finalist

The Upshot, Inequality

About the Project

What’s the relationship between household income and college attendance? Reality, it turns out, forms a remarkably straight line. Moving up only one percentile on the family-income distribution makes enrolling in college about 0.7 percentage point more likely, a fact that’s true up and down the income ladder. The line is too straight, in fact, to appreciate at first glance, so The Times invited readers to to draw their own charts to guess the relationship. Hundreds of thousands of readers did, and, sure enough, many got it wrong. Readers praised “You Draw It” as “the future of math textbooks” by building a reader’s thinking into the explanation.

Readers also hold deep misconceptions about the value of college. These misconceptions perpetuate inequality. They are, as one reader put it, “Important. Possibly affecting policy too.” A survey conducted for The Times found that more than half of Americans think the unemployment rate for young college grads is higher than it is for young people who do not attend college. The truth could not be more different. The unemployment rate for college graduates ages 25 to 34 is only 2.4 percent. A one-question quiz revealed the biases many Americans carry with them. Learning the answer forced many to engage with the truth for the first time.

For poor Americans, the place they call home can be a matter of life or death. In some other parts of the country, adults with the lowest incomes die on average as young as people in much poorer nations like Rwanda. The Times offered an interactive map and description of sweeping new research. It also constructed a local report card for every reader’s hometown. By using geolocation, the story was really 600 different stories, with personalized language and graphics for each of the regions in the country with its own health data. These stories were served by default: Readers did not have to click or type to gain access to them, a transaction that feels increasingly forced. Special attention was paid to make sure the personalized stories read as if they were constructed by hand, and not the result of a fill-in-the-blank template.

Sixth graders in the richest school districts in America are four to seven grade levels ahead of children in the poorest districts. That’s like missing all of high school and middle school. Integrated words and charts contextualized new data — importantly, the analysis was not meant to rank school districts — and allowed readers to look up the districts they cared about most: often, those they came from, those serving their children and neighbors, or the places they dream about moving. The unprecedented resolution of this new data allowed us to examine the relatively few districts where white students and their minority classmates come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Disturbingly, academic gaps persist, with Hispanic and black students scoring below their white classmates, even when they come from families who make the same money, are as likely to be married and have the same educational backgrounds.