Demographic facts your students should know cold

Here’s an update of a series I started in 2013, and updated in 2016.

Is it true that “facts are useless in an emergency“? Depends how you define emergency I guess. I used to have a little justification for why we need to know demographic facts, as “the building blocks of first-line debunking.” It’s facts plus arithmetic that let us ballpark the claims we are exposed to all the time. The idea was to get our radar tuned to identify falsehoods as efficiently as possible, to prevent them spreading and contaminating reality. Although I grew up on “facts are lazy and facts are late,” I actually still believe in this mission, I just shake my head slowly while I ramble on about it.

It started a few years ago with the idea that the undergraduate students in my class should know the size of the US population. Not to exaggerate the problem, but too many of them don’t, at least when they reach my sophomore level family sociology class. If you don’t know that fact, how can you interpret statements such as Trump’s “I’ve created over a million jobs since I’m president”? (The U.S. population grew by about 1.3 million between the 2016 election and the day he said that; CNN has a jobs tracker.)

What’s a number for? Lots of people disparage the nitpickers when they find something wrong with the numbers going around. But everyone likes a number that appears to support their argument. The trick is to know the facts before you know the argument, and for that you need some foundational demographic knowledge. This list of facts you should know is just a prompt to get started in that direction.


Here’s the list of current demographic facts you need 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 make sense of those things when other people use them. And it’s really a ballpark requirement (when I test the undergraduates, I give them credit if they are within 20% of the US population — that’s anywhere between 260 million and 390 million!).

This is only 25 facts, not exhaustive but they belong on any top-100 list. Feel free to add your facts in the comments (as per policy, first-time commenters are moderated). They are rounded to reasonable units for easy memorization. All refer to the US unless otherwise noted. Most of the links will take you to the latest data:

Fact Number Source
World Population 7.4 billion 1
US Population 326 million 1
Children under 18 as share of pop. 23% 2
Adults 65+ as share of pop. 15% 2
Official unemployment rate 4.3% 3
Unemployment rate range, 1970-2017 4% – 11% 4
Labor force participation rate, age 16+ 63% 9
Labor force participation rate range, 1970-2015 60% – 67% 9
Non-Hispanic Whites as share of pop. 61% 2
Blacks as share of pop. 13% 2
Hispanics as share of pop. 18% 2
Asians as share of pop. 6% 2
American Indians as share of pop. 1% 2
Immigrants as share of pop 13% 2
Adults age 25+ with BA or higher 30% 2
Median household income $54,000 2
Total poverty rate 14% 8
Child poverty rate 20% 8
Poverty rate age 65+ 9% 8
Most populous country, China 1.4 billion 5
2nd most populous country, India 1.3 billion 5
3rd most populous country, USA 324 million 5
4th most populous country, Indonesia 258 million 5
5th most populous country, Brazil 206 million 5
Male life expectancy at birth 76 6
Female life expectancy at birth 81 6
National life expectancy range 50 – 85 7

1. U.S. Census Bureau Population Clock

2. U.S. Census Bureau quick facts

3. Bureau of Labor Statistics

4. Google public data:

5. CIA World Factbook

6. National Center for Health Statistics

7. CIA World Factbook

8. U.S. Census Bureau poverty tables

9. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Handy one-page PDF: Demographic Facts You Need to Know 2017


Filed under Me @ work

13 responses to “Demographic facts your students should know cold

  1. Suggestions: (1) label the things that are US rates as such. (2) add % college grads among Whites (it is lower than people think). (3) add poverty rate for non-child non-over 65. (4) what is life expectancy range the ranges of? By race? By whether you already have a fatal disease? At birth? At age 21?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. Intro says all refer to US unless noted otherwise. Good idea on college – commonly misestimated. Life expectancies are at birth. National life expectancy range is life expectancy at birth across countries, from Chad to Japan basically.


      • A little regrouping would clarify. You currently move back and forth between US and world data, which can be confusing. As laid out, it is hard to tell that “national life expectancy range” is global because it follows the US numbers for life expectancy. I read it as range of life expectancy in the US.


  2. In addition, might be helpful to note that the poverty threshold for a family of 4 is around $22,000. Could be interesting to break out by gender/race, but that might be too much, given the list is already getting long! Cool idea.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. myra

    you should note that you have 2 different totals for US pop (324 and 326 million) so you might want to give the dates for each.


  4. Andy

    This is great! What about the total fertility rate? 1.84 in 2015.

    A little tough to interpret correctly, but a nice number to know.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Gina

    Given the current state of socio-political and civil rights issues in the US, incarceration and/or supervision numbers or rates (esp by race) seems pertinent.


  6. Pingback: Test Your Knowledge of Basic Demographic Facts - Kasa Tech

  7. Pingback: Demographic Facts You Need to Know, NC vs. US | Carolina Demography

  8. Pingback: Teach it! Family syllabus supplements for Fall 2017 | Family Inequality

  9. 2017 US GDP = $19 trillion

    2017 Budget Outlays = $4 trillion
    2017 Tax Receipts = $3.3 trillion


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