On May 20 2020, a number of people on social media referenced remarks by United States President Donald Trump about the meaning of the phrase “per capita”:
Trump: "And, when you say per capita, there’s many per capitas. It’s like per capita relative to what?"
Answer: Relative to the number of people, which is what that phrase means.
It is not partisan to say this man is dumb. And that's dangerous.
— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) May 21, 2020
Commenters typically referenced Trump’s purported remarks, as well as a fixed understanding of what “per capita” means.
Per Capita, Defined
By commonly accepted definition, “per capita” is used to denote measurements as they relate to a specific population.
per cap·i·ta | \ (ˌ)pər-ˈka-pə-tə \
Definition of per capita
1: per unit of population : by or for each person
the highest income per capita of any state in the union
2: equally to each individual
The Merriam-Webster site provided two contemporary uses of “per capita” in sentences:
Recent Examples on the Web
That prompted the government to add yet another new chart — based on per capita death rates — which puts it behind Belgium, Spain and Italy.
— Mark Landler, New York Times, “U.K. Virus Tests Surpass Target, but Britain’s Deaths May Overtake Italy’s,” 1 May 2020
Even with that progress Oregon remains in the bottom half nationally in testing per capita.
— oregonlive, “Coronavirus testing rises sharply in Oregon as capacity expands, guidance loosened,” 30 Apr. 2020
Household income adjusted across a given population is a common context in which per capita appears. For instance, California has notoriously wealthy areas populated by the famous and the powerful. But even in places like Malibu, there are plenty of people who are not rich or powerful. Per capita income in the state of California is higher than that of other states — but not by as much as you might think:
According to the Census ACS 1-year survey, the median household income for California was $71,805 in 2017, the latest figures available. Compared to the median US household income, California median household income is $11,469 higher. 2018 Census ACS data (including 2018 California household income numbers) will be released in September of 2019. California median family income and per capita income for California are shown further down.
The same holds true for the state of New York — home to, but not exclusively represented by, New York City:
According to the Census ACS 1-year survey, the median household income for New York was $64,894 in 2017, the latest figures available. Compared to the median US household income, New York median household income is $4,558 higher. 2018 Census ACS data (including 2018 New York household income numbers) will be released in September of 2019. New York median family income and per capita income for New York are shown further down.
Even though millionaires and billionaires make their homes in those states, the overall wealth of the median household is not millionaire-level.
Trump on Rates of COVID-19, Per Capita (Video)
In addition to text tweets, videos of President Trump’s remarks circulated:
TRUMP: “When you say per capita, there’s many per capitas. It’s like per capita relative to what? But you can look at just about any category and we’re really at the top”
— JM Rieger (@RiegerReport) May 20, 2020
Trump’s remarks and their context appeared in a transcript dated May 20 2020, and titled “Remarks by President Trump in a Meeting with Governor Hutchinson of Arkansas and Governor Kelly of Kansas.”
Just before the “per capita” remarks, Trump claimed that increased testing leads to increased cases:
THE PRESIDENT: But when you do 14 million tests, you’re going to find more cases. If instead of 14 million tests we did 3 million — like, Germany is at about 3 million; South Korea is at 3 million, and they’ve done a very good job. It’s not a knock, but we’re at almost 14 million. We’re going to be passing 14 million very soon.
So you’re going to have more tests. If we do 3 million, everyone would say, “Oh, we’re doing great,” you know, in terms of cases. We’re going to have more cases. If we did 3 million — maybe that’s what we should’ve done. I said — if I would’ve done 3 million, they’d say, “Oh, they have very few cases. United States is doing well.”
We’re finding a lot of people. By doing testing, you’re finding people. So we’re doing 14, Germany is doing 3, South Korea doing 3, and I think they’re number two and three. So we’re way ahead of everybody. But when you do that, you have more cases. So a lot of times, the fake news media will say, “You know, there are a lot of cases in the United States.” Well, if we didn’t do testing at a level that nobody has ever dreamt possible, you wouldn’t have very many cases.
So we’re finding a lot of cases, and we’re doing a great job once we find them.
Okay, thank you very much.
The relevance of per capita testing rates and case rates of COVID-19 was immediately apparent in this context. The United States’ population is at just over 328 million people, and Trump said the country had performed 14 million tests — just over four percent of the American population. (A real-time resource from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that as of May 21 2020, 12,917,827 tests were reported in the United States.)
He also said that Germany did “about three million.” Assuming that was true, Germany’s population stood at just 83 million. We were unable to substantiate whether Germany had performed a total of three million tests, but we were able track down a statistic for how many Germans were tested on average each day:
Widespread testing for the virus began early in the year as labs across the country were allowed to produce their own test kits, which epidemiologists have credited with keeping the number of deaths relatively low and preventing Germany’s comprehensive health care system from becoming overwhelmed. In the country of 83 million, more than 140,000 tests are being carried out daily, and hundreds of people are being trained to help health authorities trace and break new chains of infection.
If the three million figure were accurate, that would put Germany at about a 3.6 percent rate per capita against a 3.9 percent rate in the United States based on both figures provided by Trump. His claim led to the following question by an unidentified reporter present at the meeting and this exchange, between the reporter, Trump, and Dr. Deborah Birx:
Q (Inaudible) follow up. How does it compare to a per capita basis? Obviously, the United States is much larger than a lot of these Europeans countries.
THE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
Q How does our testing compare per capita —
THE PRESIDENT: Sure.
Q — to those nations?
THE PRESIDENT: You want to do that, Deborah?
DR. BIRX: Yeah.
THE PRESIDENT: Per capita.
Birx spoke first, acknowledging the United States lagged behind countries with higher per capita rates of COVID-19 testing:
DR. BIRX: Yeah, our — you know, our testing now, we’re almost up to 4 percent. So some of the state — some of the European countries are at 4 to 5 percent. And I think our goal is to ensure that we can find the asymptomatics. And I think that’s really our focus right now, working with every state to really help them identify where these clusters came from historically, and then proactively going for those clusters, identifying them early, and finding the asymptomatic individuals before. And no one is intending to spread the virus. I always want to be very clear about that. Asymptomatic patient — people don’t know they’re infected. And so, together, we’re really working to find them.
And I think it’s a — it’s a unique challenge, and I think together we’re really making progress.
Trump then cut in with the remarks in question and asserted the United States was “at the top” of all COVID-19 metrics, before segueing to accuse CNN of reporting “fake news”:
THE PRESIDENT: And, you know, when you say “per capita,” there’s many per capitas. It’s, like, per capita relative to what? But you can look at just about any category, and we’re really at the top, meaning positive on a per capita basis, too. They’ve done a great job.
Q How come yesterday, at the Republican lunch, that you were complaining about the CDC and the delayed rollout of testing, do you think that —
THE PRESIDENT: No, I wasn’t complai- — I don’t know who gave you that. It’s fake news.
Q Do you think Robert Redfield is doing a good job leading the CDC?
THE PRESIDENT: Yeah, I do. I do. It’s fake news, Kaitlan. Fake news. Therefore, you can report it on CNN.
On May 20 2020, an unidentified reporter (likely CNN’s Kaitlan Collins) pressed United States President Donald Trump on COVID-19 metrics for per capita testing in the United States. That question was very clearly focused on Trump’s comparison of tests in millions (12 or 14 million versus three million) to the testing rates per population — per capita. He initially lobbed the question to Birx, who confirmed that the U.S. still lagged behind some European countries per capita. At that point, Trump interrupted to claim that the phrasing “per capita” was unfixed and vague. However, the meaning of “per capita” is not amorphous nor unspecific, whether in that context or overall.