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‘Left Behind America’: Chasing the Data

By David Luftig

Greetings all, this is David Luftig, your research services librarian. Thursday night, I sat down to finally watch the new Frontline/ProPublica documentary “Left Behind America.”

As a longtime viewer of Frontline, I was intrigued to see an entire episode devoted to Dayton. Although this documentary raises some valid points and only briefly talks about the solutions being provided (including those stemming from the University of Dayton), I want to talk about the data.

I was sure that there would be lots of data mentioned, so I sat down ready to take notes. Upon watching, I was surprised to not be provided any references regarding where Frontline or its experts got their data. For example, I heard statements such as:

  • One in three manufacturing jobs have left Dayton.
  • West Dayton is home to 40 percent of the city’s population, but there are no grocery stores to serve them.
  • At the beginning of the 20th century, Dayton was filing more patents per capita than anywhere else in the country.
  • Fuyao Glass America provided the largest Chinese investment in Ohio history.

The list goes on. To anyone living in Dayton, those statements seem plausible if not familiar. We can use various resources to show food insecurity in West Dayton or the number of patents coming out of Dayton in the early 20th century (although finding exact city information on early 20th-century patents is difficult).

But it would be nice to know where Frontline got its data without having to chase it. So I headed over to the show’s “Left Behind America” website to see if it had a data resources section. It did not — but it had several articles that summarized the documentary. In the article “How struggling Dayton, Ohio Reveals the Chasm Among American Cities,” ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis does provide one data set to demonstrate a point. In the article, MacGillis says:

  • There have always been more and less wealthy cities, but nothing like what is on display today, as a select group of hyper-prosperous cities put ever-greater distance between themselves and their counterparts. Consider this: In 1980, even after the first wave of deindustrialization, Middle American cities such as Dayton were remarkably close to par with their coastal peers. Per capita income in the Seattle area was only 16 percent greater than in the Dayton area. In metro Boston, the edge was only 6 percent. In New York, 14 percent. In Washington, 31 percent. And in the San Francisco Bay Area, 33 percent. All those cities have since left Dayton in the dust. Seattle’s per capita income is now 48 percent greater. Boston’s edge has jumped all the way to 61 percent — a tenfold increase. New York and Washington are both over 50 percent greater. And in the Bay Area, per capita income is 94 percent greater than in the Dayton area — that is, almost double.

MacGillis then links to the FRED Economic Research Center data sets.

“Perfect,” I thought. “Let’s take a look.”

FRED is the economic research wing of the Federal Reserve Bank’s Eighth District. FRED is using data provided by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.

So let's take a closer look at MacGillis' statement using the per capita personal income data from 1969 to 2016 in the Dayton MSA (metropolitan statistical area) and the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue MSA. Both links below provide downloadable data sets to comma-separated value (CSV) and Microsoft Excel formats, among others. They also have nice interactive charts. Keep in mind that this is regional data, not just city data.

By examining the data, we certainly can see diverging paths regarding the per capita incomes of the Dayton region versus those in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Washington, region starting in the early 1980s. (Images of the charts are also available below in the photo gallery.)

In this librarian's opinion, nothing proves a point quite like referencing good, locatable data.

If you ever need assistance locating or understanding data. Don't hesitate to drop me a line. You can also contact your department’s library liaison. Now let's continue to grow our community for the better.

— David Luftig is a research services librarian in the University Libraries and a liaison/subject selector for engineering, geography, geology, mathematics, and physical sciences.

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