Numbers Don’t Lie

Martha Stark - New York, New York
As heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, May 15, 2006
Martha Stark

New York City Finance Commissioner Martha Stark believes in numbers. Whether they are lotto tickets, school grades or municipal tax revenues, she says numbers shape our lives more than we realize.

Age Group: 18 - 30
  • Listen to This I Believe on RadioPublic

  • Podcasts

    Sign up for our free, weekly podcast of featured essays. You can download recent episodes individually, or subscribe to automatically receive each podcast. Learn more.

  • FAQ

    Frequently asked questions about the This I Believe project, educational opportunities and more...

  • Top Essays USB Drive

    This USB drive contains 100 of the top This I Believe audio broadcasts of the last ten years, plus some favorites from Edward R. Murrow's radio series of the 1950s. It's perfect for personal or classroom use! Click here to learn more.

I believe in the power of numbers. I don’t know when my belief in numbers began. Perhaps when I was a child. My high school dropout, bookkeeper dad came home each week to tell us that he had played the numbers — my neighborhood’s equivalent of lotto but lots more complex.

Dad would convert every thought and dream to a number with help from his trusty dream book. You had a dream about mice? Consult the book. “That’s a 12, 17 or 21. What was the mouse doing — climbing out of a garbage can? Well climbing is a 21, 34, or 42 and garbage is a 17, 39, or 32. So, let’s play 12 and 21 (the reverse of each other), 17 (it appeared twice), and 34, the year your mom was born.”

Perhaps it was my mom’s retort to my dad’s obsession with playing the numbers that helped me understand the power of numbers. She cited my dad’s record: “You have hit the number once in the last 150 weeks. We could have used that money to replace the 15-year-old couch.”

Or perhaps it was my mother’s focus on our grades. “You got a 97? What’s your strategy for those extra three points?” Maybe it was my dad’s legitimate number playing, his love of doing his friends’ tax returns to earn a little extra money — a skill he taught his 15-year-old daughter that led to my current job as the New York City Finance Commissioner, aka the tax collector.

But numbers also scare me. What does it mean that my mom died when she was only 46 and I was only 21? What does it mean that my brilliant doctor brother, who told me he would live forever, followed suit and died at the age of 46 on his 17th wedding anniversary?

Maybe it is just that numbers don’t lie. Management gurus often say you are what you measure, which might explain why I haven’t been on a scale in the last year. Whatever the reason, my belief in numbers grows stronger every day: As I try to improve what we do at the New York City Department of Finance, an agency responsible for collecting more than $18 billion in city revenues; as I try to persuade my 17-year-old niece that she has to go to college. Most people wouldn’t expect her to amount to much, as the child of a single mother, but it helps to show her the numbers. Without a college education, she won’t be able to pay for her manicures, pedicures, makeup consultation and the fancy car she so wants.

As I try to live each day as if it could be my last — I turn 46 on June 30 — I know numbers will guide me through the future. Numbers may scare me, but they also tell me it’s likely I’ll make it well past 46 and keep serving my beloved hometown. Knowing that, I’m going to keep believing numbers.

Martha Stark is the first African-American woman to serve as New York City Finance Commissioner. The Brooklyn native studied at New York University and was captain of the school’s varsity basketball team. Stark previously worked for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and was a White House Fellow assigned to the State Department.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with Emily Botein, John Gregory and Viki Merrick. Photo by Nubar Alexanian.