The force behind America’s fast-growing nonprofit sector, and more!


Leslie Wolken wrote from Colorado Springs — the 1.2-mile-high city — to ask how the nonprofit sector has changed in America. She also wanted to know which parts of the United States have the most nonprofit jobs.


Fascinating questions, Leslie! And they’re timely. Because it turns out that nonprofits have never been a bigger part of the U.S. economy, according to our analysis of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Over the past 15 years, nonprofit employment has grown 33 percent, dwarfing the 9 percent job growth enjoyed by the for-profit private sector over that time. Nonprofits have passed local government to become the second-largest source of employment in the country, behind the for-profit sector.

The top five states for nonprofit employment are all in the Northeast, with Vermont leading a New England sweep of the podium, along with Maine and Massachusetts. Pennsylvania and Rhode Island round out the top five. (D.C., that inveterate outlier, would beat out every state for first place — but it may not be fair to compare a dense urban core that is also the nation’s capital with the sprawl of your average American state.)

At the bottom of the rankings are Texas, that bastion of privatization, self-reliant Nevada, and the storm-battered territory of Puerto Rico.

Women are about twice as likely to work at nonprofits as their male peers, and nonprofits have the smallest wage gaps of any sector. The typical woman at a nonprofit makes about 88 percent as much each hour as her male counterpart, a huge improvement over the 80 percent she’d earn in the for-profit sector, and effectively tied with the 87 percent she’d make in the federal government.

As a rule, the more educated and older you are, the more likely you are to have a nonprofit job. Having an advanced degree makes you three times likelier to do nonprofit work than your friends who didn’t make it past high school.

That’s partly because medicine has swallowed much of the nonprofit sector. When you think of nonprofits, you think of scrappy do-gooders running on donations. But 1 in every 5 nonprofit jobs is in hospitals, and 1 in 3 is in the health sector more broadly. About 2 in 5 hospital jobs in the entire country are in nonprofits. Nonprofit hospitals employ more than twice as many people as colleges, private schools, or religious organizations — the next largest nonprofit industries.

The South’s lack of nonprofits largely reflects a lack of nonprofit medicine. Other types of nonprofits tend to be more equitably distributed. As readers, Tim Carter in Seattle and Joe Bogucki in Newnan, Ga., pointed out when we looked into credit scores, the South’s surfeit of for-profit hospitals might be another reason that region has such high medical debt.

Why are glasses more common than hearing aids?

In a previous column, we examined the ubiquity of eyeglasses. But we didn’t have time to address a follow-up question from reader Brenda Philips, who wanted to know why so many people wear glasses as opposed to hearing aids.

Another great question, Brenda! We owe you a bonus button.

For the record, yes: glasses far outpace hearing aids. Only 3 percent of American adults wear hearing aids, while almost two-thirds of us wear glasses, according to our analysis of the National Health Interview Survey, conducted by the Census Bureau on behalf of the National Center for Health Statistics. And as with glasses, the use of hearing aids ascends with age.

About 20 percent of Americans age 75 or older wear hearing aids, which are more prevalent among men (25 percent) than among women (15 percent). More educated folks are more likely to wear hearing aids, as are folks who earn more.

But the biggest gaps are racial. Among the 70-plus crowd, Whites are about twice as likely to have hearing aids as everybody else, and nearly four times as likely as Black Americans — 18 percent versus 5 percent.

But is it that Whites are more likely to lose their hearing, or just that they’re more likely to correct that loss? Both, actually!

Whites are twice as likely as their Black friends to say they’re having “moderate trouble” or “a lot of trouble” with their hearing — 22 percent versus 11 percent. And they’re almost twice as likely to get hearing aids — 57 percent versus 32 percent of those with hearing trouble.

Overall, hearing-aid use has risen in the past decade. Kristen Conners, audiologist and owner of Prescription Hearing in the sylvan suburb of Palos Park, south of Chicago, tells us that’s likely due to major technological advances which have made the devices far more comfortable and effective — and far less visible.

Age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) appears to be less prevalent than age-related vision loss (presbyopia). But both are pervasive. It’s just that hearing loss will affect most of us while vision loss will affect basically all of us.

Which brings us back to Brenda’s question: why aren’t hearing aids more common?

When we asked Connors, she spoke with the weary, battle-scarred perspective of a professional who has spent three decades convincing people that, yes, their spouse is right: You really do have hearing difficulties. And yes, hearing aids would help.

“It’s not an impairment or disability that you see or feel,” Connors said. When your eyes start to go, you can perceive what you’re missing. A battery of blobs swims placidly where the menu used to be. But when your ears go — usually around age 65 — there’s little to cue you into all the noises popping off around you.

“Your brain and body just adapt or adjusts,” Connors told us. “The person who has the hearing loss doesn’t realize it at first.” It often takes the outside perspective of a spouse or child to point out they’re missing anything at all.

Hearing aids are also freighted with stigma, Connors said. About half of young adults wear spectacles, which can imbue some frames with an aura of hipness. But despite their recent high-tech makeover, hearing aids retain an only-for-old-folks aura.

The best question we can’t answer

What is the combined weight of all the bar code stickers on fruits and vegetables, annually? Every time I peel one off, and make sure they don’t end up in my compost pile, I wonder about this!

— Tamsen McGinley in San Jose

Is it too late to change our name to “Department of We Don’t Have Data, but We Did Some Back-of-the-Envelope Math?” Because it kills us that we can’t answer hilarious and all-important questions like these. Maybe an alert reader with connections to the produce-packing industry can help us out?

For now, we can tell you that Americans spent about $114 billion in the past year on fresh fruits and vegetables, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Produce ate up about 10 percent of our grocery and liquor-store spending, just behind bakery products and just ahead of the category that includes mineral waters, soft drinks, and vegetable juices.

While grocery spending has fallen as superstores and technology have driven down prices, our loyalty to fresh fruit and vegetables remains. They make up about as much of our food budget as they did in 1960 — although there was a wild time in the 1970s and 80s when processed and canned produce almost passed the real deal; and spending on sweets actually passed spending on fresh produce for much of the Carter administration before we came to our senses.

We should note that our figures for processed produce do not include wine, which has swallowed up more and more of our food budget. Since the turn of the millennium, the average American has spent more on fermented fruit than on the fresh variety — which is one way to get your fruit without those perfidious produce stickers.

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