What current demographic facts do you need to know?

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:

Description Number Source
World Population 7 billion 1
US Population 316 million 1
Children under 18 as share of pop. 24% 2
Adults 65+ as share of pop. 13% 2
Unemployment rate 7.6% 3
Unemployment rate range, 1970-2013 4% – 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 pop 13% 2
Adults with BA or higher 28% 2
Median household income $53,000 2
Most populous country, China 1.3 billion 5
2nd most populous country, India 1.2 billion 5
3rd most populous country, USA 315 million 5
4th most populous country, Indonesia 250 million 5
5th most populous country, Brazil 200 million 5
Male life expectancy at birth 76 6
Female life expectancy at birth 81 6
National life expectancy range 49 – 84 7

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

5 thoughts on “What current demographic facts do you need to know?

  1. – median household income in the US
    – % of American [children / elderly / population] in poverty

    Basic (as in “up,” “down,” or “flat”) knowledge of trends in, for example, violent crime, inflation-adjusted wages, income tax rates, divorce, incarceration, % of single parent households, % of dual-career families, immigration, etc.


    1. Kim’s list (along with yours) is part of what I expect from intro students — as well as the ability to _find_ those sorts of stats from a riae source.

      I particularly like her emphasis on the up/down/flat because it helps give context (and counter the we’re all going down hill narrative we see all too often). I am less wedded to their knowing more than the _ballpark_ levels though.


  2. I might also argue that along with knowing a bunch of demographic facts, students should also have a good idea of which facts are knowable and which facts are not – either because data aren’t available, or lack some precision, or because concepts are fuzzy. For instance, we can know that the world population is about 7 billion. But we don’t know the exact date that it surpassed 7 billion. We might know that women own more than 1% of all wealth, but we don’t know exactly how much they do own. We know the number of divorces per existing marriage, but we can’t know the fraction of current marriages that will end in divorce.


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