Not all the news was bad, Census Bureau finds

October 13, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- As a people, Americans are living longer, smoking less, spending more money on books, newspapers and magazines. Fewer are owning guns and are less likely to get a divorce. They are even eating more broccoli.

These are some of the highlights of the 1994 Statistical Abstract of the United States, a potpourri of factoids compiled by the Census Bureau. The report, published annually since 1878, provides a snapshot of changes in U.S. life over a period of 20 or 30 years or more.

Coming in a political season in which candidates of both the left and the right are focusing on America's shortcomings, it is a portrait of a nation that is remarkably healthy.

While many of the thousands of tables contained in the report present an overall rosy picture of the United States, others depict significant problems and a marked polarization between the comfortable lives of most people and the despair of those at the bottom.

Violent crime rates have remained steadily high, and the number of children born out of wedlock has increased by more than 200 percent from 1970 to 1991.

Moreover, in what some economists and politicians say accounts in part for the sullen mood of the electorate in a time of relative peace and prosperity, average hourly earnings and average weekly earnings as measured in constant 1982 dollars declined from 1980 to 1993.

On some, more basic measures of well-being, the news is good. The report indicates that Americans born in 1992 will have an average life expectancy of 75.7 years, up from 70.8 years for those born in 1970. And infant mortality dropped to 8.5 per 1,000 live births in 1992, from 20 per 1,000 live births in 1970.

Per capita income measured in constant 1987 dollars increased to $16,366 in 1993 from $13,922 in 1980, and disposable income rose by nearly $2,300 in that same period when inflation is taken into consideration.

The report indicates that the movement toward a less destructive life style has taken hold. In 1974, for example, about half of those 12 to 17 years of age said they had tried cigarettes and alcohol. By 1992, those in the same age group who said they had tried smoking had dropped to 33.7 percent, while those saying they had sampled alcohol had declined to 39.3 percent.

Consumption of red meat and eggs -- two foods associated with stroke and heart disease -- decreased markedly from 1970 to 1992, and the annual per capita consumption of whole milk dropped from 213.5 pounds to 81.4 pounds in the same period.

Even broccoli, which nutritionists have long praised and former President George Bush has disparaged, has gained a wider acceptance. In 1970, per capita consumption of broccoli was half a pound; by 1992 it had increased to 3.4 pounds.

The amount of money Americans spend on books has increased -- to $16.5 billion in 1992 from $10.5 billion in 1970. And the amount of money spent on newspapers and magazines rose to $20.5 billion from $13.2 billion in the same period.

But that increase is dwarfed by the surge in the amount of money spent for video and audio equipment and personal computers. Spending in that category ballooned to $70.3 billion in 1993 from $8.8 billion in 1970.

At a time when many politicians are decrying the breakup of the family, the report showed that the divorce rate, which peaked at 5.3 per 1,000 population in 1981, declined to 4.8 in 1988.

And although fear of crime has become a major issue in recent years, the percentage of people over the age of 18 who own a gun declined to 40 percent in 1991, from 46 percent in 1974.

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