America, the Land of Opportunity? Not for Most Poor Kids, One Study Finds

Includes cartoon infographic


Contrary to the mantra commonly touted by politicians on the campaign trail, few Americans born into poverty ever get to experience the iconic rise from “rags to riches.”

A new study by a team of UC Berkeley and Harvard economists examined upward income mobility throughout the nation, finding that less than 8 percent of people born at the bottom 20 percent of the income ladder ever climb to the top 20 percent as adults. The study, though, also found that geographic location can significantly impact those odds. Cartoon journalist Andy Warner explains. Continue reading

The 10 Most Dangerous Cities in America

Includes interactive charts
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Photo by Adam Katz/flickr

After spiking in the 1980s, crime rates in the United States – for both violent and property crimes – fell significantly in the last two decades. In particular, the rate of violent crime (murder, rape, aggravated assault and burglary) by 2012 had dropped to less than half what it was in 1991, according to FBI data (from 758 violent crimes per 100,000 Americans to 387). And although a disproportionately high level of violent crime still occurs in densely populated urban areas, many of America’s big cities experienced similar downward trends. That includes the nation’s two largest metropolises — New York and Los Angeles — both of which had precipitous drops in violent crime. Continue reading

How Serious Is the California Drought? These Satellite Images Say It All

Includes images
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NASA satellite imagery comparing California’s snowpack in January 2013 to January 2014. GIF animation created by Rhett A. Butler_Mongabay.com.


If you live in California, snowpack is a pretty crucial part of your existence.

That’s because about a third of the state’s water supply comes from snow that accumulates in the mountains, mostly during the winter months. In fact, California receives roughly half of its entire year’s water supply between December and February alone. Continue reading

Visualization: How America Responded to the State of the Union via Tweet

Includes interactive visualization

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As President Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union address last night, the Twittersphere was, unsurprisingly, abuzz with commentary and reactions. To show which parts of the speech struck a chord — or a nerve —  Twitter data viz whiz Nicolas Belmonte created the following interactive visualization. It attempts to gauge the resonance of the various topics Obama addressed by linking every paragraph in the speech to the thousands of Tweets submitted directly in response, and geographically tracing where those Tweets originated. Continue reading

How Much Water Do Californians Use and What Does A 20 Percent Cut Look Like?

Includes interactive charts
A parched Folsom Lake,  at less than 20 percent of capacity (photo courtesy of National Weather Service).

A parched Folsom Lake, at less than 20 percent of capacity (photo courtesy of National Weather Service).


This is not a good time for California’s umbrella industry.

2013 was one of the driest years on record in the state. And January  – usually among the wettest months — has failed to provide any relief. With the precipitous drop in reservoir levels, Gov. Jerry Brown recently declared a statewide drought emergency, calling this “perhaps the worst drought California has ever seen since records began being kept about 100 years ago,”

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The Math of Credit Card Debt, Explained

Includes animated video

Beware the lure of that plastic in your wallet!

According to the Federal Reserve data, the average indebted U.S. household in 2013 shouldered credit card debt of more than $15,000 (although that figure is skewed by a relatively small number of extremely debt-ridden families). While U.S. credit card debt has fallen since the height of the recent recession, and pales in comparison to average mortgage debt (about $148,000) and student loan debt (about $32,000), it still remains a major burden for millions of U.S. consumers who cumulatively owe upwards of $850 billion to credit card companies.

So how do credit cards actually work? And more importantly, how do the credit card companies make their millions from all your swipes? Animator Josh Kurz explains.


Josh Kurz started out as an embryo, 53 times smaller than a US nickel. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, he began at an early age fusing the abstract concepts of science and comedy. Now he works as an independent filmmaker specializing in humorous science explainers ranging from the economics of voting to why some people (like he himself) hate cilantro. His work has been featured on WGBH, ABC, PBS, NPR, TEDed, and Radiolab.

How San Francisco’s Population Ebbs and Flows Throughout the Day

Includes visualization and interactive chart

screenshotThe 2010 Census put San Francisco’s population at about 789,000. But take a citywide head count in the middle of an average weekday, and you’re guaranteed to find a whole lot more people here.

Nearly 21 percent more — upward of 162,000 additional folks.

That’s according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which calculates a statistic called the Commuter-Adjusted Daytime Population to estimate the number of people present in a particular city during normal business hours. Calculated by adding the number of non-working residents to the total working population, the figure underscores the idea that many cities dramatically expand and contract throughout the course of a day — their true populations determined by much more than simply the number of people who actually live there. It also highlights the additional challenges faced by local governments responsible for planning and building infrastructure for both residents and all inbound travelers. Continue reading

How Poverty Is Measured in America, Explained in Two Cartoons

Includes video and cartoon infographics

During his State of the Union Address delivered 50 years ago on January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty in America.” At the time, roughly 19 percent of Americans were living below the newly developed federal poverty line. Johnson’s declaration ushered in a wave of social welfare legislation — part of a set of domestic reforms that became known as “The Great Society.” It led to the creation of health and education safety net programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and food stamps. By 1969, when he left office, the poverty rate had dropped by more than a third, to about 12 percent. Continue reading

The Lowdown’s Top 10 Visualizations of 2013

2013 provided endless journalistic opportunities for number-crunching and data-based storytelling. Below, in no particular order, are 10 memorable visualizations featured this year on The Lowdown.

1. The Math of Trash, an Animated Music Video

How much trash do you think you produce in a day? How about a year? It adds up a lot faster than you might  think — especially in the United States, which collectively generates more garbage — or municipal waste — than any other nation on earth. With only five percent of the world’s population, America creates roughly 25 percent of the planet’s waste.

Continue reading