Demographic facts your students need to know right now (with COVID-19 addendum)


PN Cohen photo / Flickr CC:

Here’s the 2020 update of a series I started in 2013. This year, after the basic facts, I’ll add some pandemic facts below.

Is it true that “facts are useless in an emergency“? I guess we’ll find out this year. Knowing basic demographic facts, and how to do arithmetic, lets us ballpark the claims we are exposed to all the time. The idea is to get your 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 (and tell the same stories over and over).

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 like, “The U.S. economy lost a record 20.5 million jobs in April“?

Everyone likes a number that appears to support their perspective. But that’s no way to run (or change) a society. The trick is to know the facts before you create or evaluate an 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.

These are 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 264 million and 396 million!).

This is only a few dozen 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:

Number Source
World Population 7.7 billion 1
U.S. Population 330 million 1
Children under 18 as share of pop. 22% 2
Adults 65+ as share of pop. 17% 2
Official unemployment rate (July 2020) 10% 3
Unemployment rate range, 1970-2018 3.9% – 15% 3
Labor force participation rate, age 16+ 61% 9
Labor force participation rate range, 1970-2017 60% – 67% 9
Non-Hispanic Whites as share of pop. 60% 2
Blacks as share of pop. 13% 2
Hispanics as share of pop. 19% 2
Asians / Pacific Islanders as share of pop. 6% 2
American Indians as share of pop. 1% 2
Immigrants as share of pop 14% 2
Adults age 25+ with BA or higher 32% 2
Median household income $60,300 2
Total poverty rate 12% 8
Child poverty rate 16% 8
Poverty rate age 65+ 10% 8
Most populous country, China 1.4 billion 5
2nd most populous country, India 1.3 billion 5
3rd most populous country, USA 327 million 5
4th most populous country, Indonesia 261 million 5
5th most populous country, Brazil 207 million 5
U.S. male life expectancy at birth 76 6
U.S. female life expectancy at birth 81 6
Life expectancy range across countries 51 – 85 7
World total fertility rate 2.4 10
U.S. total fertility rate 1.7 10
Total fertility rate range across countries 1.0 – 6.9 10


1. U.S. Census Bureau Population Clock

2. U.S. Census Bureau quick facts

3. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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

10. World Bank

COVID-19 Addendum: 21 more facts

The pandemic is changing everything. A lot of the numbers above may look different next year. Here are 21 basic pandemic facts to keep in mind — again, the point is to get a sense of scale, to inform your consumption of the daily flow of information (and disinformation). These are changing, too, but they are current as of August 31, 2020.

Global confirmed COVID-19 cases: 25 million

Confirmed US COVID-19 cases: 6 million

Second most COVID-19 cases: Brazil, 3.9 million

Third most COVID-19 cases: India, 3.6 million

Global confirmed COVID-19 deaths: 850,000

Confirmed US COVID-19 deaths: 183,000

Second most COVID-19 deaths: Brazil, 121, 000

Third most COVID-19 deaths: India: 65,000

Percent of U.S. COVID patients who have died: 3%

COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 Americans: 50

COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 non-Hispanic Whites: 43

COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 Blacks: 81

COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 Hispanics: 55

COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 Americans over age 65: 400

Annual deaths in the U.S. (these are for 2017): Total, 2.8 million

Leading cause of death: Heart disease, 650,000

Second leading cause: Cancer: 600,000

Third leading cause: Accidents: 160,000

Deaths from flu and pneumonia, 56,000

Deaths from suicide: 47,000

Deaths from homicide: 20,000


COVID-19 country data: Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center

U.S. cause of death data: Centers for Disease Control

U.S. age and race/ethnicity COVID-19 death data: Centers for Disease Control



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