The Rewards of Data Analysis

In this blog post, Woodstock Senior Vice President of Research Spencer Cowan discusses the role that his data has played in the creation of retirement savings legislation. It serves as a testament to the value of data analysis in the policy-making process.

A major part of the work I do consists of analyzing data, developing formulas for spreadsheets, and searching for patterns in the numbers, not the kind of work that appeals to most people.  To make the work even less attractive, the patterns that I find are frequently bad news.  Data analysis consistently shows that some neighborhoods are ground zero for multiple, overlapping symptoms of economic distress, with high rates of foreclosure and long-term vacant properties, low household incomes and rates of employment, and a lack of access to capital from banks to buy homes or finance small businesses, just to name of few.  Even more discouraging is how those indicators of economic distress endure over time and align with patterns of persistent racial segregation.  With all that negativity, I still find the work enormously rewarding and satisfying.  It’s not that I enjoy giving people bad news.  The reward is in what the numbers can help accomplish. 

One of the first jobs I did after coming to Woodstock Institute addressed a widely recognized problem threatening the future facing many private-sector workers.  Simply put, they are not saving enough to supplement their Social Security payments in retirement, and, as a result, face the prospect of dramatically reduced standards of living and economic hardship in coming years.  After all, Social Security replaces only about half of a worker’s pre-retirement income, and the situation is most problematic for lower income workers. 

My task was to find a way to estimate the number of private-sector workers in Illinois who did not have access to a retirement savings plan at work, the easiest way for workers to save.  I did the analysis and came up with a number, 2.5 million, over half of all private-sector workers in Illinois, another piece of bad news.  Some very talented folks, with the people and political skills to get things done, worked very hard together and took that number (and some others that I came up with), used the numbers with a myriad of other resources they gathered, built a coalition, and persuaded the Illinois General Assembly to pass, and the Governor to sign, the Illinois Secure Choice Saving Program.

The Illinois Secure Choice Program is the first state-level retirement savings program for private-sector workers to be enacted, and it is now in the process of implementation.  It will help many of the 2.5 million Illinois workers I tallied save for a more economically secure retirement.  That is the reward, knowing that a number I came up with played a small part in changing policy in a way that will make the news a little less bad.