Facts That Frame the Future

  • July 28, 2017
  • by Rebecca W. Rimel

Facts can illuminate growing challenges and significant trends in American life and help identify realistic responses.

Facts have been much in the news lately—whether they can be trusted, if they matter, even if they exist. But for The Pew Charitable Trusts, facts remain what they have always been: the nonpartisan evidence that guides our mission to improve public policy, inform the public, and invigorate civic life.

Reliable and verifiable facts give us the ability to speak truth to power—across the partisan divide—without reservation or rancor. As we mark the 100th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s birth, it is worth recalling his first State of the Union address when he told Congress: “To state facts frankly is not to despair the future nor indict the past.” At Pew we do neither. Instead, we celebrate our past—and 70-year history of public service—and use science and data to reimagine and sustain a better future.

Facts can illuminate growing challenges and significant trends in American life and help identify realistic responses. Just consider what Pew’s ongoing research has taught us about American families’ financial stability in the years leading up to and since the Great Recession. That research, which includes a major survey in 2015, has raised the curtain on facts that can help policymakers understand the financial stress that millions of Americans are experiencing—and assist in developing solutions for the future. For example, 2 in 5 households do not have enough savings to cover an unexpected $2,000 expense. And 1 in 3 families have no savings at all, including 10 percent with incomes over $100,000. These facts—detailed in the article “Family Life on the Financial Tightrope”—reflect the everyday financial challenges of millions of American households and can help point the way toward policy choices that give families a better chance to build a more secure financial future.

Flooding—especially in areas prone to repeated and expensive restoration—is another serious challenge that calls for fact-based solutions. From 1980 to 2013, flooding caused more than $260 billion in damage. But this damage was not spread evenly across America’s 3.5 million miles of shoreline bordering oceans, lakes, and rivers. Data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency reveal that historically 1 percent
of the properties covered by the National Flood Insurance Program are inundated repeatedly. But this same small percentage of flood-prone areas is responsible for 25 to 30 percent of flood claims. And that program is now $25 billion in debt.

We can begin to address this growing problem by developing evidence-based policies that identify properties that flood frequently and are expensive to repair; set insurance rates that reflect actual risk; focus on hazard planning and mitigation; and encourage communities to improve management of the most flood-prone areas. Trust traveled to Norfolk, Virginia, where much of this work is occurring, to learn more about how to break the cycle of loss and rebuilding—and create flood-prepared communities.

Facts also provide a basis for understanding changes occurring around the world. One of the biggest global religious evolutions was documented in a report released in April by the Pew Research Center. It projected that there will be almost 3 billion Muslims by 2060—a 70 percent increase since 2015—and that Islam will surpass Christianity as the world’s largest religion by 2075. The center also estimates that 3.3 million Muslims live in the United States today. Islam’s growth at home and abroad is certain to bring new perspectives to culture, politics, art, education, and much more. So it is critical that we recognize this expanding influence and, with rigorous fact-based research, come to a better understanding of the world’s fastest-growing religion.

As President Kennedy advised, we endeavor to state the facts frankly. That has long been a tradition at Pew—and one embodied in the life, character, and public service of J.N. Pew IV, M.D. Joe Pew passed away in June after almost three decades as a tireless member of the Pew board of directors. His contributions to the stewardship of this organization were invaluable. And his commitment to maintaining the culture and traditions of Pew is a lasting legacy.