Monthly Archives: March 2015

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.)


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



Where are all the tornadoes?

One benefit of a persistent winter in the East may be an unprecedented delay in the spring season of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., which began issuing alerts in 1970, has never gone through March without issuing any but that’s a possibility this month.

Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton in the movie "Twister."
Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton in the movie “Twister.”

So far this year, the agency has issued just four tornado watches and no severe thunderstorm watches. A 51-day span between alerts earlier this year was the longest since 1986. And the preliminary tornado count so far this year  – 28 – falls well short of the average seen by this date over the last decade – 193. UPDATED: A tornado touched down in eastern Oklahoma Wednesday, destroying dozens of mobile homes. At least one death was reported. The center also issued the first severe thunderstorm watch of the year.

In an SPC notice updated Monday, meteorologist Greg Carbin said there’s no single reason for the early quiet.  March is typically when severe thunderstorms become common as warm, moist weather systems move north from the Gulf of Mexico and clash with colder air anywhere from the Great Plains to the Mid-Atlantic states. Certain conditions can spin tornadoes from those storm fronts. As a long, cold Eastern winter yields slowly to spring, that hasn’t happened much.

The quiet also means little for the season’s outlook, Carbin said. The busiest and quietest years for early-season tornadoes rarely wind up that way by season’s end.

In a broader analysis issued last year, Carbin found that the number of early-season watches has a weak relationship with the number of watches issued later in the season.

The heart of tornado season occurs in April and May. Plan ahead.




–Paul Overberg

Our new geek-in-chief

My data science friends were all a-buzz recently: America now has a Chief Data Scientist.

DJ Patil, a former LinkedIn chief scientist and a chaos theorist, was appointed by President Obama as top cheerleader and data policy officer for Big Data.

“One of the most awesome things for me personally,” said Patil in his post-announcement address to the STRATA conference “is how much our government has embraced data science.”

As evidence, Patil points to the dashboards the President uses, the 135,000 data sets released on, and how it all contributes to government transparency and solving our social ills.

It is indeed an exciting time. But as the new national spokesman for government data, Dr. Patil has a lot of explaining to do.

The Veterans Administration – the agency awash in charges that dozens of hospital leaders falsified wait-time data to get bonuses while veterans died – recently responded to a USA TODAY open records’ request by sending data as a jpeg, a photo format.

The government didn’t release the data. It released a picture of the data.

That doesn’t even touch the politics that prevent collecting the right data in the first place.

For 19 years, the National Rifle Association has blocked federally-funded gun research. As a result we have almost no national data with details on who is injured or killed by guns, under what circumstances, what caliber, where the gun came from, whether it was illegal, and what works to prevent gun accidents and trafficking.

When an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo was killed by a police officer, everyone wanted to know: ‘How many people have been shot by cops– black or any race?’

Good luck finding out. In spite of decades of debate, the data is not collected.

So welcome aboard, Dr. Patil. We need a chief geek. But your biggest challenge may be bureaucracy below your new boss.

–Jodi Upton

The measles outbreak showed us how little we know

As the Disneyland measles outbreak spread across the country, reporter Steve Reilly and I started looking for national school-level vaccination data to show pockets of where young children might be most vulnerable.

We couldn’t find it. And neither can the government agency tasked with controlling epidemics.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” says Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the CDC offers guidelines, it can’t control how state health departments do the work — and strained budgets, staffing shortfalls and indifference means each state collects and reports the numbers differently.

Schuchat told a National Press Foundation panel last month that although data collection is improving, each year the CDC comes to the same conclusion: overall, it’s still pretty lousy.

“Diseases spread at the local level, not at the national or state level,” she says. “The reality is happening neighborhood to neighborhood.”

So what would happen in a disease outbreak more serious than measles? Hard to tell when so many states don’t provide the numbers. Only 13 states collect and report the data along CDC guidelines.

Steve and I contacted officials in each state to get their data. To date, we’ve collected vaccination rates from nearly 45,000 schools in 28 states. We anticipate we’ll get a few more, but we’ll fall far short of a 50-state look at vaccination.

For parents who want to know, California is the best at data collection, capturing figures for each school – broken out by specific vaccine and exemptions – and posts it all online.

Utah collects that same data, but only provides it with a FOIA request. In South Carolina, officials could provide only exemption rates – no word on what vaccines a kid had received. From Nevada we received a sample of the vaccination levels of 3% of the state’s kindergartners, collected from 50 random schools.

And that was in the states that admitted they even had the data. Indiana officials said they didn’t collect it. Ohio officials said it didn’t exist, and when we showed them the web form they use to collect it from each school, they stopped responding to us. People in Maine said they reported the numbers to the CDC and then destroyed the data — even though the whole purpose of collecting it is so the state can identify at-risk communities.

In Hawaii, the Department of Health said residents might get angry at schools if they knew the vaccination rates at some of them, and said that was reason to withhold the numbers.

But there’s some hope for the future. Iowa health officials said USA TODAY’s  efforts convinced them there was public interest in vaccination levels; they plan to publish the school data on their website annually from now on. And Schuchat said with renewed research and media interest this year, the CDC is leaning harder on states to fall in line to collect and report out their numbers.

“We’ve been stressing with the states the need to gather this data in a consistent way,” she says. “It’s of increasing priority to us – we’re pushing it more now.”

–Meghan Hoyer