By United States. Federal Emergency Management Agency

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Hundreds of thousands would be denied by two cruel years. 1 in 5. Is that a big number? In 1997 the Labour government said it would spend an extra £300m over five years to create a million new childcare places. �300m. Is that a big number? In 2006 the National Health Service was found to be heading for a budget deficit of nearly £1bn. �1 billion. Is that a big number? The answer to the first question is yes, 1 in 5 men aged 65 would be a catastrophic number to die in two years, a number to strike terror into every 65-year-old, a number so grotesquely enormous that someone at the Telegraph should surely have asked themselves: could it be true?

Definition does not like discretion and so tempts us to count rigidly, as teacher taught, in this case by saying that behaviour is either illegal or not. But this fancifully optimistic classification, insisting on false clarity, serves only to produce a deceptive number. It is astonishing how often the '1 in 4' headline comes along for one social phenomenon or another. It is invariably far tidier than it ought to be, often to the point of absurdity. The paradox of this kind of neatness is that it obscures; it is a false clarity leading to a warped perspective, and an occupational hazard of paying insufficiently inquiring attention to the news, in numbers above all.

In 1987 the total personal wealth of all the households in the UK added up to about four times as much as the annual income of the whole country. By 2005 wealth was six times as great as annual national income. Not poorer, but prodigiously richer, is the story of the last twenty or so years. This wealth is held in houses, pensions, shares, bank and building society accounts, and it is held very unequally, with the rich holding most of the wealth, as well as most of the debt. Some of the increase reflects house-price growth, some increases in share prices, but there is no denying that as the economy has grown, and incomes with it, so have savings and wealth.

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