Episode 936: The Modal American : Planet Money Kenny takes Jacob on a nerdy quest to find the "typical American." Naturally, it ends up harder⁠—and nerdier⁠—than we planned, and the answer is more subtle than we expected. | Subscribe to our newsletter here.
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Episode 936: The Modal American

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Episode 936: The Modal American

Episode 936: The Modal American

Episode 936: The Modal American

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Mode, not average, is a better way to find the typical American. Pal Szilagyi Palko / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm hide caption

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Pal Szilagyi Palko / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm

Mode, not average, is a better way to find the typical American.

Pal Szilagyi Palko / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm

Looking for the average American is like putting a bunch of people with different qualities into a blender, hoping a clear-cut human would come out intact. But there is a different way to find the most "typical" American: the mode.

The mode is the most common thing in a dataset. It's not the average (flashback to 5th-grade math class). So when news headlines and politicians reference the average American, they really mean the typical American, aka the modal American. That's a statistic that, as far as we can tell, hasn't been tracked down before.

Today on the show, we out-nerd ourselves and head down the statistical rabbit hole in search of the real Modal American. Of course, it's harder than we expected, and the answer turns out to be far more subtle than we predicted.

And in case you're interested, here's how we did it. Our methodology:

Our modal American was calculated using the 2017 five-year American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample, via the IPUMS project at the University of Minnesota. We grouped Americans using the following characteristics: age, race and ethnicity, sex, neighborhood type, marital status, education, household income, and employment status.

Our age variable is defined by Pew Research Center's generational categories as of 2017: Silent Generation (72 – 89), Baby Boomer (53 – 71), Generation X (37 – 52), Millennial (21 – 36), and Generation Z (20 and under).

Race and ethnicity are defined as non-Hispanic white or non-white. As in the survey, sex is defined as male or female. Marital status is defined as never married, currently married or previously married (divorced, separated or widowed). Education is defined as having a bachelor's degree or higher; or not having a bachelor's degree (including people with associate degrees or who completed some college classes but didn't earn a degree).

Neighborhood type is a constructed variable based on neighborhood density. First we calculated the tract-weighted density of each Public Use Microdata Area (PUMA), the smallest geographic variable available in our data. Then we designated each PUMA as either urban, suburban or rural so that the population shares in each category matched the survey responses described in this article from FiveThirtyEight.

Household income is based on annual pre-tax money income. We created four categories, based roughly on IRS tax brackets: low-income (less than $35,000); middle income ($35,001 to $75,000); upper middle income ($75,001 to $165,000); high-income (over $165,0000). Because marital status and other variables act as rough proxies for household size, we did not adjust income for household size.

Employment status is defined as either working full-time year-round (35 hours or more per week, 50 or more weeks per year) or not working full-time.

Got all that? Thanks for reading this far.

Music: "Bossa De Ipanema","Wild Baby Rock" and "Pyramid Thoughts."

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