- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2001

Americans are getting smarter. And richer. And they like to go to zoos and auto shows although they're increasingly partial to trucks.

A lot of Americans go to jail, too. Not to visit. To stay awhile. In fact, the number of prisoners in federal and state lockups rose 5 percent between 1997 and 1998, bringing the total of those staring through bars to 1,300,000.

The observations come from the new "Statistical Abstract of the United States," one of the nation's most popular and influential tomes and, according to a nationwide panel of librarians, one of the "Best 100 Documents of the Century, 1900-99."

Librarians say the book is so popular and considered so valuable, it's kept under information desk counters in most libraries. Readers are constantly trying to filch it, reports Glenn W. King, chief of the Census Bureau's Statistical Compendia Branch. Mr. King is the publication's "overseer" and a contributor to the publication.

The 1,000-page, year 2000 edition of the annual compendium is appearing three months later than usual. It usually comes out in late November or December each year. But because Congress did not complete the nation's budget on schedule last fall, the Census Bureau couldn't pay for the printing.

That's one fact not in the book. Another is that the annual Statistical Abstract is anything but abstract.

Still another fact is that despite the accepted notion that the book paints a picture of America, it doesn't. It allows users to depict Americans in myriad ways.

Are they smarter? The Abstract tells us that between 1995 and 1999, the percentage of adults taking adult-education classes rose from 40 percent to 46 percent mostly to "advance on the job." The oddity is that more people with bachelor's degrees (62 percent) sought further schooling than those with a high school diploma or its equivalent (37 percent).

Are they richer? Overall, the average net worth of families increased from $224,800 in 1995 to more than $282,000 in 1998. Western families, on average, accumulated the biggest nest eggs $327,100. Midwesterners did worst, managing to achieve average worth of just $248,800.

And about the zoos and auto shows: 26.5 million sauntered through animal parks in 1998 (and, in case you wondered, 7.2 million flew kites).

Nearly 14 million attended auto shows in 1997 (but 25 million went dancing).

And in 1999, new-truck sales exceeded new-car sales for the first time. Sales of trucks represented 50.1 percent of all vehicle sales in 1999. In 1992, the figure was 37 percent.

Some of the dates that correspond to the facts go back a few years, yet the Abstract always provides the latest information available. So U.S. population figures are the latest estimates, not numbers from the 2000 census, which aren't out yet.

Although they are as specific as can be, the Abstract's numbers are to some mere trivia. But to educators, journalists, marketers, planners, insurers and others in business and industry, they're numeric manna.

"The information is in demand. We receive hundreds of e-mail messages and phone calls a month asking about the book and requesting that we include certain items of information," says Mr. King. And indeed, "We have a reason for printing every fact in the book," he adds.

Mr. King explains that the eight statisticians who edit and compile the Abstract determine what they will include by conducting periodic readership surveys, by analyzing their coverage to identify "voids in the areas we should cover" and by assessing the value of "new studies that we see coming from different agencies of government and others."

The book and its companion Internet and CD-ROM presentations are based on the statistical output of some 300 government and private sources. Each year, it is updated and new information is included.

This year, 78 new tables were added. They cover such topics as teen-age sexual activity and pregnancy, retail prescription drug sales and children's school readiness skills.

And did we mention the Abstract reports that, in 1998, 6,277,000 people (3.2 percent of the population) played backgammon?

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