The Numbers Game

One economist’s very personal take on data analysis

Reginald Noël.

Reginald Noël is an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Photo: Grant Gibson

By Sally Jarzab

“There’s a relationship between socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity, and there’s a stratification that comes about in our society because of it.”
Reginald Noël

The mean annual income of black households between 2014 and 2016 was $48,870.78. Housing costs made up 35.9 percent of total expenditures for Hispanic households. Asian households spent more than any other group on fresh fruit.

There’s a data point for just about everything these days. But is there a point to all the data?

The stats above come from an interactive data essay titled “Race, Economics, and Social Status.” Published in May on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website, it uses a series of colorful charts to detail patterns between socioeconomic status (SES) on the one hand, and race and ethnicity on the other.

According to Reginald Noël (MS ’06), an economist at the bureau and the essay’s author, everyone from researchers and policymakers to fundraisers and marketers is finding value in the data.

Noël has his own takeaway. “There’s a relationship between socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity, and there’s a stratification that comes about in our society because of it,” he says.

In 2014, Noël, who obtained his master’s degree in financial economics from UB, received quite a bit of buzz for a report titled “Income and Spending Patterns Among Black Households.” Readers asked him to expand the analyses to include other races; hence the current piece, which breaks down various components related to SES—occupation, family structure, housing stability, etc.—among seven racial and ethnic groups of U.S. households.

The charts reveal significant disparities that play out in different ways. Of particular interest to Noël is the correlation between SES and food. “The data shows that the way people shop and the foods they purchase have a correlation with their socioeconomic status. It could be the availability of transportation or grocery stores within a particular community, or the price discrimination that exists in some areas,” he explains, adding that the lack of competition typical of poorer neighborhoods can drive up the cost of food.

Noël wasn’t always in tune with these underlying connections himself. “I thought success was more a function of how hard people were working,” he says. “I didn’t take into consideration how many factors come into it and that a lot of those factors are out of people’s control. It’s like playing a game: If you have certain social capital, your probabilities for success will be higher. And when I see how those particular things correlate with race and ethnicity, it’s concerning.”

Sharing this realization has become something of a personal cause for Noël (he stresses that it reflects his own views, and not necessarily those of his employer). His regular duties within the bureau’s division of Consumer Expenditure Surveys involve scrubbing and aggregating census data for use in the development of the Consumer Price Index. He made a special push to get this piece published to bring attention to the numerous ways that SES, race and well-being intersect—and because he’s just drawn to numbers.

“I may sound like a nerd, but I love data, and this was fun for me,” says the 37-year-old economist, who counts indoor gardening, quantum physics, dancing and capoeira among his interests outside of work. Noël confesses that he uses economic principles in his private life too, including in what many would consider to be matters solely of the heart.

“Before my wife and I were married, I did a quantitative analysis of how beneficial the relationship would be,” he says, laughing—then quickly adds, “Obviously, it was very beneficial to me, because I’m married to her now.”

My Bold Moment

“To follow my dream of becoming an economist, I took a chance on relocating for a lower-paying job. I didn’t know if it would work out, but it did. I made friends in the area and got substantial pay increases three years in a row.”
—Reginald Noël (MS ’06)