Deadly Events Are Contagious: Mass killings can trigger others

Roughly a quarter of mass killings and school shootings occur because of contagion — with one event increasing the chances of another happening — even if the suspect doesn’t consciously realize it, according a study released today.

Researchers at Arizona State University and Northeastern Illinois University used USA TODAY’s mass killings data, which tracks killings of four or more people since 2006. USA TODAY’s data, unlike other sets, include many events that do not receive extensive media coverage.

Monte Talmadge walks past a sidewalk memorial in front of the Emanuel AME Church after a mass shooting there killed nine people in June.
Monte Talmadge walks past a sidewalk memorial in front of the Emanuel AME Church after a mass shooting there killed nine people in June.

The researchers also used 15 years’ of data on school shootings, plus data about public shootings where at least three people were shot but not necessarily killed, from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. They fit all three data sets into a contagion model to see if one event had a ripple effect.

They found that the biggest events – mass killings and school shootings, which tended to get more publicity – had an average window of 13 days of contagion.

“What we think might be happening is the very small cross section of the public that’s vulnerable, that message gets to them and causes unconscious ideation to perhaps do something similar,” says Sherry Towers, professor of statistics at Arizona State University’s Simon A. Levin Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center.

In the case of the recent Charleston, S.C. church shooting, there haven’t been any mass killings in the two weeks since. But there have been a rash of church arsons, which investigators are probing.

“Even though there doesn’t seem to be a contagion in this certain case, there does seem to be related events that have occurred,” Tower says.

Mass shootings with fewer than four deaths created no such contagion effect, Towers said. The researchers only looked at similar events, so they did not measure whether a mass killing or school shooting lead to an increase in single shootings, for instance.

Towers said she started wondering if school shootings triggered similar events in January 2014, after she was visiting the Purdue University campus when a student entered a campus building and shot and killed another student.

“There had just been three other school shootings in the news in the past week,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Is there something that’s causing these things to bunch together?’”

Other researchers have linked increases in suicides to high-profile suicides in similar contagion studies.

Towers says she hopes their findings will serve as a starting point for other researchers to look into the contagion effect further.

“This is a huge problem in the United States,” she says. “The chances of a person being killed in a mass killing is very low, but much higher in the US than in any other industrialized country.”

The study was published in the peer-reviewed PLOS ONE. USA TODAY’s mass killings data showed they happen every two weeks on average in the U.S. , and nearly a quarter do not involve guns. Explore USA TODAY’s map of mass killings in America

–Meghan Hoyer

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EmailShare

Cuban-Americans: An important island *in* Florida

Even before U.S. and Cuban negotiators met Thursday for talks on resuming relations, presidential campaign staffs had been focusing on effects of the thaw and the outsized role that Cuban-Americans may play in next year’s election, especially among Hispanics.

The reason: They are more likely to vote than other Hispanic groups and are highly concentrated in Florida, a swing state, making them easier to reach for issues and fundraising.

In wooing immigrant voters, politicians weigh totals but also the share who are voters, which may be relatively small because many aren’t citizens or don’t register. Hispanics made up 17% of the population in 2012, but just 10% of voters.

Cubans, however, are overrepresented. Nationwide, they were 4% of Hispanics in 2012 but 7% of Hispanic voters. Two-thirds of eligible Cubans voted, compared with just under half of all Hispanics.

HispanicGroupVoting2012

In Florida, Cubans represented 36% of Hispanic voters, according to an exit poll by Bendixen & Armandi, a Hispanic research firm. Puerto Ricans made up 27% and voters from South America, 22%.

Another key factor: fully half of all Cuban-Americans live in just two southeast Florida counties — Miami-Dade and Broward — and  60% live in just nine Florida counties. That helps fund-raising, advertising, making appearances and driving turnout.

And they have become a swing bloc in a swing state. The Cuban-American community had already drifted from fierce anti-Castro roots and solid GOP support. Exit polls showed that Florida’s Cuban-Americans split about evenly between President Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012,  helping the president win Florida.

Add the announced or likely GOP presidential candidacies of two major Florida politicians — former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, himself the son of Cuban immigrants — and Cuban-Americans may be harbingers of the election.

By comparison, there are almost  as many Salvadoran-Americans as Cuban-Americans, according to 2013 Census data. But 59% of Salvadoran-American adults are not citizens and can’t register to vote, compared with just 29% of Cuban-American adults.

Less well-known but growing in importance: Florida’s 600,000 Puerto Ricans of voting age, who enjoy U.S. citizenship by birth. Thousands arrive each  year, fleeing the commonwealth’s ailing economy and rising crime. Many settle in central Florida, especially Orange County.

Overall, 3.1 million Puerto Ricans of voting age live on the mainland, but their presidential impact is muted because 43% live in the reliably Democratic states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

–Paul Overberg

Can suburbs catch up with cities?

The post-recession growth of large cities is slowing as suburbs — and their contribution to the economy– finally recover, Census estimates released today show.

Over half of the cities with more than 250,000 people added fewer residents than the previous year, according to calculations by demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

And in 53 metro areas over 1 million people, central cities slipped to the same 1% growth rate as their suburbs, Frey said. In 2012, those same cities were growing 20% faster than their suburbs. From 2000-10, the reverse was true: Those suburbs grew at three times the rate of their cities.

The trend may signal that smaller cities and suburbs can once again draw people seeking work and affordable housing.

“I don’t think we’ll know for sure until we have a full-fledged economic resurgence,” Frey said.

City-vs-suburb
City-vs-suburbs

But the last decade may have given large cities a strong leg up in the competition. Frey found that almost half of large cities already have grown more since 2010 than they did in the previous decade.

One is San Jose, which reached 1.02 million and became the 10th city to top 1 million (not including Detroit, which fell under 1 million in the 1990s.) Riding Silicon Valley’s boom, San Jose has grown 6.6% since 2010.

That boom also boosted San Francisco by 1.3% last year, enough to step over Indianapolis to become the 13th-largest city at 852,459. The effects of the boom have spread across San Francisco Bay, where Oakland has grown almost 6% since 2010, reversing a 2% drop in the previous decade.

Other highlights:

— Denver vaulted Washington, Memphis and Boston to become 21st-largest, at 663,862, up more than  2% last year and 11% since 2010.

— Las Vegas, once again growing strongly, stepped over Louisville, as did Portland, Oregon, to reach 29th and 28th, respectively. Louisville has grown almost 11% since 2010, but Portland has grown 17% and Las Vegas, 28%.

— Almost a decade after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans grew 1.4% to 384,320, topping Arlington, Texas for 50th. It has grown almost 12% since 2010 but remains 20% smaller than in 2000.

— Just 12 of the 100 largest cities lost population in the last year, and just seven have done so since 2010: Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Toledo, Buffalo and Baton Rouge.

–Texas’ five largest cities — Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin and Forth Worth — together added 125,000 people, or 1.5%, to reach 6.68 million.

–Paul Overberg

Unemployment rate obsession

Market players and financial journalists are hyper-focused this week over the April unemployment report, which is due Friday, following a shaky March report.

But the unemployment rate and job growth are inadequate measures. Adding people who can only get part-time work or have given up looking, for example, nearly doubles the  unemployment rate of 5.5%.

BLSUnemployment

Some of the rate’s recent improvement is due to boomers swelling the retirement ranks. Workforce participation – the share of people 16 or older who are working or looking for work – has dropped from 66% to under 63% since 2008.

Analysts — and the journalists who cover them — focus largely on the two headline numbers because they move markets.  Here are other yardsticks to help you get the full story:

  • Gallup’s payroll-to-population rate. It counts adults working at least 30 hours a week for an employer and divides them by the population. March: 44.1%, the highest for that month since tracking began in 2010. This omits some part-timers and all self-employed workers, but it’s broader than official measures and unaffected by most changes in the makeup of the workforce.

GallupP2pIndex

  •  Welch Consulting, an economic research firm, produces an index of full-time equivalent workers, which washes out changes in the size and age of the population. March: 98.3, unchanged from February but up 1.1% from a year earlier. It was launched at 100 in 2004. The index also shows that women have recouped recession job losses but men remain 3% shy of that mark.

WelchConsultingIndex

  • Turnover. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ March report is due next Tuesday. The Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey shows how many jobs are open and how many workers were hired, laid off, fired or quit. The latter is considered an acid test of workers’ confidence. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has said she follows it closely. In February, quits hit 1.6%, up from 1.4% a year earlier. The survey showed 5.1 million openings or 3.5%, up from 2.9% a year earlier. Calculated Risk blog offers details.

JOLTSChart6

-Paul Overberg

Are you happier than a Santa Monica resident?

Flickr user João André O. Dias
Flickr user João André O. Dias

Santa Monica, Calif., on Monday unveiled an index of its residents’ well-being. Cue the California jokes.

But look again. Researchers spent a year and used a $1 million grant that the city  won from Bloomberg Philanthropies in its initial Mayors Challenge competition. Santa Monica’s index uses dozens of measures ranging from produce consumption to library card ownership to feelings of safety.

An explosion of social statistics has spawned city, state and national rankings, many not worth the time it takes to click through the photo gallery. They’re often a mess of inappropriate or incomplete data sliced down to a top 10 list.

But serious efforts to improve social yardsticks have been developing for years.  A growing body of research shows that cities where people feel happier have better economic gains. So an accurate measurement that focuses more on people and less on economic measures like gross domestic product,  is the Holy Grail.

The first United Nations Human Development Index was published in 1990. The playfully named Happy Planet Index made its debut in 2006. The U.S.-based Social Science Research Council published the first American Human Development Index in 2008.

And just this month, Gallup and Healthways published the latest version of their polling-driven well-being rankings of large U.S. cities and the UN-affiliated Sustainable Nations Development Network published its third World Happiness Report.

Most share a focus on how well people live, as measured by health, education and living standard data.

Santa Monica’s index goes farther. It includes outlook — how people feel — and a measure of the environment, both natural and man-made. Findings:

  • 70% report being happy all or most of the time; only 5% report being sad all or most of the time.
  • Older age groups score higher overall than young ones, whites and Asians higher than Hispanic and blacks.
  • On survey statements like “I am free to decide for myself how to live my life,” and “Most days I get a sense of accomplishment from what I do,” 70% to 80% of residents agreed, matching levels seen on similar surveys in Europe.

Many U.S. communities have assessed themselves at least once through a set of indicators. Few have used them to drive government policy, foundation funding or measure change with regular updates.

With its beautiful location, mild climate and strong economy, Santa Monica would seem to have few worries.

But the report uncovered weaknesses. A fifth of residents worry about paying their rent or mortgage, an affordability concern driven by high housing prices. That concern is higher among minorities and the young.

Residents score below the U.S. average in feeling they can count on the people around or in their ability to change local conditions.

The report authors suggested that the city try to strengthen civic engagement by leveraging its outdoor spaces and facilities.

Self-assessment,  change and reassessment — not list rankings — represent the real potential of well-being indexes.

–Paul Overberg

 

 

New study challenges immigrant “catch-up” theory

New research is challenging the consensus view of how the USA absorbed the huge wave of immigrant workers who arrived from 1850 to 1910.

Earlier studies showed that on average, immigrants started in lower-skilled jobs compared with native workers, but caught up within a generation as they learned English and adopted American customs. This “start hungry, work hard, sacrifice and succeed” formula has become a version of “the American Dream.”

The reality was more complicated. A study that traced thousands of workers from 1900 to 1920 through their census forms showed that the average immigrant  made about the same amount as natives and moved up the occupational ladder at about the same rate.

Probing more deeply, the authors found that immigrants from high-income European nations – think Austria, England, France and Germany – made more upon arrival than comparable native workers and kept an edge as they assimilated. At the same time, workers from lower-income nations – such as Ireland, Italy and the Scandinavian countries – started close to or slightly below native workers in terms of income, and progressed at about the same rate.

imm_1900_update
Not all immigrants fared the same in the U.S. For many, success depended on the skills and wealth they brought with them. Amounts are in 2010 dollars.

The work was done by Ran Abramitzky of Stanford, Leah Platt Boustan of UCLA and Katherine Eriksson of Cal Poly. A version was published in the Journal of Political Economy last summer. The more detailed version released this week shows that average immigrant workers in the rapidly industrializing Midwest — Ohio, Illinois and Michigan — outearned natives, while the reverse was true in New England and the Great Plains.

The answers could shape ongoing debates about growing income inequality and how to overhaul the nation’s dysfunctional immigration policy.

The study used digital versions of census forms — which are made public after 72 years — from Ancestry.com. The forms were from 1900, 1910 and 1920.

The team focused on men between 18 and 35 years of age in 1900.   About 20,000 men who immigrated between 1880 and 1900 were paired with a similar group of 1,700 native men the same age. That let the researchers avoid averages and study actual people across 20 years as if they were in a long-term study. Lacking actual income data, the researchers used workers’ occupations to classify income. All Southern workers and black workers were excluded because few immigrants moved to the South and blacks were subject to harsh discrimination everywhere.

The consensus that immigrant workers started behind but caught up was due to the earlier need to analyze each census separately, according to the researchers. That approach misses the 25 percent of immigrants in the Great Migration who left, typically due to poor prospects. It also can’t account for the lower skill level of workers who arrived at the end of the period. Both shifts made it seem like long-term immigrants gained skills and income more than they did.

“Some of the conventional wisdom about the ‘American Dream’ for immigrants is more fiction than fact,” said Michelle Ercanbrack, a family historian at Ancestry.com. “The journey of American immigrants was far more complex than what we often think.” The service is offering free access to many of its searchable records through Monday.

The study suggests that sharp curbs on European immigration imposed in the early 1920s probably were not necessary, because the average immigrant worker arrived with  competitive skills and rose on the occupational ladder about as well as natives did. However, “we also note that migrants that arrived with low skill levels did not manage to close their skill gap with natives over time, ” the team noted.

“I wouldn’t make a prescription for today but it’s food for thought,” Abramitzky said.

He said the team is extending its work to look at cultural assimilation. They are analyzing the names that Great Wave immigrants gave to successive children. Preliminary work shows that the “foreignness” of a name affected a child’s later earnings as an adult, he said.

Abramitzky is an immigrant from Israel. His two oldest children have Hebrew names but the youngest does not.

— Paul Overberg

Counting everyone: An acid test for a democracy

Taking a census is not one of the more exciting jobs of a national government. But a census is nothing if not democratic, so it can be a canary in a coal mine, an interesting sentinel of deeper problems. Nations as diverse as Canada, Pakistan, Australia and the United States are struggling with the same thing: How to balance privacy while still collecting the data  needed for a fair distribution of spending and electoral representation.

The U.S. Census Bureau hopes to save billions of dollars on Census 2020 with a major overhaul, but it face congressional skepticism about the investment needed. April 1 marked the start of major tests — in Maricopa County, Ariz., and 20 counties around Savannah, Ga.  Among the tests: Internet response and the use of government records when people don’t fill out a form. They will shape the design of a massive infrastructure that must be ready to test by late 2018 so that it can go live in early 2020.

Census2015

Governments track people frequently through surveys and data from benefits programs. But only a census counts everyone (or tries to) at the same time and assigns them to an exact place. That seems simple but it’s very hard to do well on a national scale.

Some European nations have shifted away from taking a census in favor of assigning everyone an ID number and keeping a central register of personal data.  Don’t count on Americans embracing this idea.

Our distrust of government is just one reason that the U.S. census is so difficult to take — and so expensive. (Census 2010 cost $13 billion across a decade.) Information-sharing between agencies that is routine in some countries isn’t allowed here. Add mobility, continental sprawl, linguistic diversity and the fears of millions of immigrants living here illegally.

The United States isn’t alone:

— Citing privacy qualms, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper scrapped the detailed version of the 2011 Census for a voluntary survey. Response plunged from 94% to 67%. Citing unreliability, the government did not publish results on more than 1,000 localities where the rate fell below 50%. “One in 4 … towns disappeared from the statistical registry,” said Paul Jacobson, president of the Canadian Association for Business Economics at a Washington conference in March. Even Toronto was affected: “We’ve got hunks of the city that have disappeared from the statistical registry.” In a country that is diversifying rapidly, the gaps worry planners, researchers and businesses.

— Pakistan’s officials have finally agreed to undertake its 2008 census. It will be conducted next March with the help of the armed forces, a sign of the strife and factionalism that has delayed it. Its last census was taken in 1998, when it had 40 million fewer people.

— Australia takes a census every five years but  may skip 2016 to catch up on the cost and work of shifting to digital collection. It’s facing the same efficiency vs. privacy debate  as the USA and Canada.

Lest Americans get smug, the House of Representatives voted last year to make the American Community Survey voluntary. (The Senate did not.) ACS surveys 2.5 million households a year for the same information that the Census Bureau used to collect during the census every 10 years.

Congress, through various laws, has asked for every ACS question. Support for ACS runs deep through local governments and business groups, social scientists, civil rights and  and economic development groups.

But  distrust of government has found a home in Congress.

Data scientists’ pay: details worth $10K

The median data analyst makes about $98,000 –including bonuses — in the U.S., according to a new salary survey from O’Reilly Media. But data people being what they are, the report includes a regression that allows anyone to compare their salary based on 27 variables from location to experience, from tools used to gender.

The survey of 816 people (about two-thirds from the U.S.) isn’t random, and the fact that it deals with data wranglers certainly caught our eye. But a survey that actually breaks down the differences among salaries really stands out.

Why aren’t more salary surveys done this way?

totalsalaries_oreilly

Salaries have been a tricky thing in the past few years, especially for journalists. Publishing salaries of state or university workers is common at news organizations. They get lots of viewers — and a lot of push back for privacy invasion.

But others have argued that knowing everyone’s salary is the only way to insure pay equity,  and that salary is based on merit not one’s ability to negotiate. It can also avoid scandals such as an $800,000 city manager in a low-income suburb of Los Angeles.

Yet even if the human resources department decided everyone’s pay should be transparent, that still doesn’t provide context — is there a good reason someone earns more?

Which is why the O’Reilly survey is important. Even with the 27 variables that contribute to salary, the regression only explains about 58 percent of the variance. Still, even the attempt to explain variance reveals some interesting findings:

  • Geography matters. Not surprisingly, data scientists in California and the Northeast make more (between $17K and $26K). But working in Texas had the second-highest boost.
  • Startups don’t pay well; neither does government. Analysts in education lowered the expected salary by $30K; start ups drop the salary about $17K.
  •  Experience counts. Every year of age and each year working with data, together adds about $2,500 to the expected salary. Using tools such as Python, Natural Language Processing, NumPy and R can *each* add $1,900 in expected salary. SQL, Python, Excel and R are the most common tools used.
  • Being female hurts. The survey shows a $13K gender pay gap among data scientists — and says no differences in tools, experience or other factors account for it. See also Wage Debate at the Oscars.

Data science –whether it’s in journalism, government contracting or elsewhere  — is a rapidly expanding field, which makes predicting salaries difficult. The O’Reilly survey may not be perfect, but it gives people real tools  to create  transparency, without invading privacy.

–Jodi Upton

Why cancer costs more at 11 hospitals

Medicare could save as much as a half billion dollars annually if it reimbursed 11 cancer centers the way all others are paid, according to a report released last week.

The average teaching hospital treating a Medicare cancer patient for a week-long inpatient stay gets about $14,500. But 11 cancer specialty centers get more than $20,500.

How did it get this way? In 1983, Congress created a loophole for the centers, which argued that their care is so complex and their patients so ill that they would lose money if they were paid under Medicare’s bundled payments. So the 11 centers are paid for actual costs — which means there’s little motivation to keep costs down, the Government Accountability Office report says.

Ten of those hospitals – which include Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York – were forced to ‘rebalance’ in 2007, but retained 42% higher payouts, according to the GAO report.

But Seattle Cancer Care Alliance stands out. It was not required to rebalance, so its potential billing target –- the amount Medicare would pay if the hospital proves treatment costs that much — is nearly $135,000, or more than five times that of the other specialty centers. Payment figures show its 20-bed inpatient unit received $60,000 for every patient discharged — more than double any of the other centers.

Seattle Cancer Care Alliance
Dr. Oliver Press, left, examines a three-time transplant patient as Dr. Corey Casper, right, looks on with three Ugandan visiting physicians at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

Seattle’s Alliance only treats bone marrow transplant patients at the small inpatient facility, communications director Holly Rosenfeld says. Other cancer patients are all seen at outpatient clinics or at University of Washington’s hospital.

Is the high-cost care worth it? GAO investigators found that the severity of illness, length of patient stay and complexity of cases barely differed between the 11 special cancer centers and other hospitals that treat cancer patients each year. Better technology and medications, along with some changes to Medicare funding to account for difficult cases, have leveled the playing field, the report concluded.

The Alliance of Dedicated Cancer Centers, which represents the 11 facilities, says the hospitals have  a five-year survival rate 17% higher than others. The group says the GAO’s recommendations would be “catastrophic,” costing its members 33 cents on every dollar spent on patients.

The organization said any changes to Medicare funding should be carefully considered. While a half-billion dollars in savings sounds like a lot, it’s a small fraction of what Medicare spends on cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2011, almost 10 percent of  Medicare fee-for-service spending went toward cancer services and drugs. The total cost? $34.4 billion.

–Meghan Hoyer

Retiring boomers are buying big houses?! Not really…

A misused statistic can spring from a simple mistake. But when the mistake confirms preconceptions or a seems unlikely it can take hold. If it does both, it can become an urban myth.

“Around one third of boomer retirees are upsizing into larger homes” fits the bill. Those boomers! forever self-indulgent and defiant of convention! Is this really happening? No.

A new study by Merrill Lynch and AgeWave surveyed 3,600 adults, a nationally representative sample that included 2,900 who were 50 or older. It found, among other things, that “pre-retirees who expect to downsize when they retire may be surprised to learn that half (49%) of retirees didn’t downsize in their last move. In fact, three in ten upsized into a larger home.” (Another 19% moved to a home of the same size.)

XXX WELLBEINGCOV_01.JPG D FEA USA VA

See the difference? The report cites “retirees … in their last move.” Only retirees who actually moved are included. From there it’s a big jump to “a third of boomer retirees,” as on Tweet declared. Or “Why many retirees are upsizing into larger homes,” as one headline put it.

Census Bureau data for 2009-13 shows that only about 7% of people over 50 move in a given year. It’s not surprising. About 80% are homeowners, many with paid-off mortgages, longtime community ties and family nearby. Among people over 60 who own their homes, fully 45% haven’t moved in at least a decade, according to Census data analyzed through the University of Minnesota’s IPUMS archive.

The study itself carries facts that belie the idea that a third of retirees are upsizing:

— A third of surveyed retirees have no plans to move at all in retirement.

— Households with people over 55 account for just under half (47%) of home renovation spending, and about a third of retiree renovators cited adding an office, upgrading a kitchen or bathroom or “improving curb appeal.”

–Paul Overberg