John Edward, a resident of Chelmsford who earned his master’s degree at UMass Lowell and who teaches economics at Bentley University and UMass Lowell, contributes the following column:
I purchase luncheon meat once or twice a month. A quarter of a pound makes the sandwich a little too thick. I order two-tenths of a pound. If it were a test, deli workers under 30 often fail.
Sometimes the young deli worker will admit their ignorance. I will have to tell them two-tenths of a pound is 0.20 on their digital scale.
More often, they will ask someone else behind the counter. It may end up in a search for the wizened shift supervisor. People over 40 rarely have a problem passing the test.
Most often, they just guess. In a recent transaction, the deli worker sliced the meat and put it on the scale. He looked at the reading of 0.29, and asked if I wanted a little more.
In the most recent assessment of 4th-grade math educational achievement the United States ranked 11th out of 36 countries. The Global Competitiveness Report put out by the World Economic Forum ranks us 51st out of 142 countries for math and science education. We are not even in the top two-tenths.
Cited frequently on the Internet is the tongue-in-cheek claim that “Math illiteracy affects 7 out of every 5 people.” In some sense it does not appear to matter – you can still get a job at the supermarket without 4th grade math skills.
However, it does matter. If we want a strong economy, we need a well-educated workforce. If we need a better workforce, we need well-prepared teachers. If we need prepared teachers, we need programs like UMass Lowell’s UTeach program: “an initiative to prepare a new generation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers.”
Math literacy also affects public policy. Exit polls show that people often appear to vote against their own self-interest. Lack of math and economic literacy helps explain why politicians get away with fooling voters.
A few years ago, I wrote a column using The Simpsons to explain tax policy. A paper titled Homer Gets a Tax Cut by a Princeton economist provided the inspiration. Homer Simpson can easily be fooled (d’oh) into gleefully supporting policy that benefits the greedy Mr. Burns (picture him rubbing his hands and saying “Excellent”).
The column had many numbers in it. In retrospect, it may not have been very effective in explaining what a good deal Mr. Burns is getting.
Opinion polls show that a majority of likely voters say they want to cut government spending. However, when asked about specific spending cuts in a recent Pew Research poll, only one proposal received a majority – cutting foreign aid.
Opinion polls also show that people think foreign aid is about twenty percent or two-tenths (or one-fifth) of the federal budget. The portion of the United States budget allocated to foreign aid is actually less than 1 percent.
The debate over putting part of social security in the stock market is on the back burner, for now. The plan, as reported in the media, was to allow 2 percent of social security to go into self-directed accounts.
If you put it that way, it does not sound like much. What was really proposed was allowing workers to risk almost one-third of their 6.2 percent social security payroll tax. I can only imagine the confusion if I asked for one-third of a pound at the deli. However, I hope the deli worker would sense it was a lot more than 2 percent of a pound.
Another proposal is a national sales tax. Proponents say the sales tax rate would be 23 percent. That makes it sound like you pay twenty-three cents on a one-dollar purchase.
The proposed tax rate is actually 30 percent. Politicians came up with the 23 percent by dividing the tax you would pay, thirty cents, by the total purchase amount including the tax (30/130 = .23).
If you gave that answer on a 4th grade math test, you would be wrong. Politicians get away with the deception because most people do not or cannot do the math. The press should reveal the dishonesty every time they report on the issue, but they do not.
In 2009, voters in Lowell had an opportunity to adopt proportional voting. A good argument could be made that Choice voting as it was called would improve representative democracy.
Voters need a certain amount of math literacy to understand that argument. If nothing else it requires knowing what proportional means. Choice voting advocates failed to clear a high math literacy hurdle and the ballot question was rejected.
Obama, Romney, Brown and Warren are all telling us how they will fight for the middle class. That is where the votes are. Even people in high-income brackets think of themselves as middle class. Households with income over $100,000 are in the top two-tenths. Their concerns may be very different from the real middle class.
The discount clothing retailer Syms used the advertising tagline an educated consumer is our best customer. I tell my principles of economics students that an educated voter is our best citizen.
Programs like UTeach are important for preparing students for careers in engineering and science. Beyond that, basic math literacy is essential to fulfill our duty as citizens.