What Current Demographic Facts Do You Need To Know?

By Guest Contributor Philip N. Cohen, PhD; originally published at Sociological Images

The other day I was surprised that a group of reporters failed to call out what seemed to be an obvious exaggeration by Republican Congresspeople in a press conference. Did the reporters not realize that a 25% unemployment rate among college graduates in 2013 is implausible, were they not paying attention, or do they just assume they’re being fed lies all the time so they don’t bother?

Last semester I launched an aggressive campaign to teach the undergraduate students in my class the size of the US population. If you don’t know that – and some large portion of them didn’t – how can you interpret statements such as, “On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States.” In this case the source followed up with, “Over the course of a year, that equals more than 12 million women and men.” But, is that a lot? It’s a lot more in the United States than it would be in China. (Unless you go with, “any rape is too many,” in which case why use a number at all?)


Anyway, just the US population isn’t enough. I decided to start a list of current demographic facts you need to know just to get through the day without being grossly misled or misinformed – or, in the case of journalists or teachers or social scientists, not to allow your audience to be grossly misled or misinformed. Not trivia that makes a point or statistics that are shocking, but the non-sensational information you need to know to make sense of those things when other people use them. And it’s really a ballpark requirement; when I tested the undergraduates, I gave them credit if they were within 20% of the US population – that’s anywhere between 250 million and 380 million!

I only got as far as 22 facts, but they should probably be somewhere in any top-100. And the silent reporters the other day made me realize I can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here. I’m open to suggestions for others (or other lists if they’re out there).

They refer to the US unless otherwise noted:

World Population7 billion1
US Population316 million1
Children under 18 as share of pop.24%2
Adults 65+ as share of pop.13%2
Unemployment rate7.6%3
Unemployment rate range, 1970-20134% – 11%4
Non-Hispanic Whites as share of pop.63%2
Blacks as share of pop.13%2
Hispanics as share of pop.17%2
Asians as share of pop.5%2
American Indians as share of pop.1%2
Immigrants as share of pop13%2
Adults with BA or higher28%2
Median household income$53,0002
Most populous country, China1.3 billion5
2nd most populous country, India1.2 billion5
3rd most populous country, USA315 million5
4th most populous country, Indonesia250 million5
5th most populous country, Brazil200 million5
Male life expectancy at birth766
Female life expectancy at birth816
National life expectancy range49 – 847

1. http://www.census.gov/main/www/popclock.html
2. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html
3. http://www.bls.gov/
4. Google public data: http://bit.ly/UVmeS3
5. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2119rank.html
6. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/hus/contents2011.htm#021
7. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2102rank.html

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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  • PatrickInBeijing

    Thanks, these numbers are important. But we need to differentiate between, say population numbers, which are generally counted numbers (though they are in fact estimates), and numbers about unemployment and median income which are calculated (I am oversimplifying I know.). Unemployment numbers don’t include everyone in the group counted. They don’t include part time workers, students, discouraged workers and other categories. And as a survey, they miscount some groups. Similarly, median income doesn’t count students, unemployed, part time workers, retired folks and other groups. For instance when I lived in San Francisco, the median income for San Francisco not only didn’t include some groups of people, but was a combined median income for San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties. The latter two are quite wealthy and this skews the numbers upwards. I certainly appreciate this article though, the inability of most of us to understand statistics has serious political consequences. Thanks for doing it.