The Stat Abstract is full of fascinating numbers. What languages do people speak at home? No problem. Flip to Table 53. In 2016, there were 303 million Americans 5 years or older. Of these, 238 million (79 percent) spoke only English. Of the remainder, 40 million (13 percent) spoke Spanish and 3 million (1 percent) spoke Chinese. People who speak a foreign language are clustered in large cities. Their share in Los Angeles is about 60 percent; in New York, it’s about half.
Or, what’s the size of the health-care industry? The answers are in Tables 171 to 193. A brief summary: In 2017, there were nearly 20 million health-care workers, including 861,000 doctors, 34 percent of whom were women. Hospitals were the biggest employers of health-care workers, with about 5 million employees, up from about 4 million in 2000.
The Stat Abstract dates from 1878, when it was compiled by the Treasury Department and subsequently published in 1879. With 157 pages and 150 tables, this first edition focused on foreign trade, finance (including huge movements of gold and silver), farm prices and production, immigration and population. In 1870, the U.S. population totaled 38.6 million, 10 times the 3.9 million in 1790, the year of the first census. In 2017, the population was 326 million. The census projects it to be roughly 390 million by 2050.
By contrast, the 2019 Stat Abstract has 2017 tables spread over 1,016 pages. The Stat Abstract’s great virtue is the breadth of its coverage. If you are a regular user of some standard statistical series (say, the unemployment rate), chances are you know the series’ strengths, weaknesses and quirks.
But the same is not true if you’re tackling unfamiliar subjects. Where do you get reliable and lucid information? You could, of course, go to Google and take your chances. But it might be more useful to take a dive into the Stat Abstract. It has 15 pages of tables on accidents, congestion and commuting. You can learn a lot quickly. For example, road fatalities have been falling for years. From 1990 to 2016, they dropped 16 percent to 37,461. You also learn that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is the source of this and other information.
Naturally, I was disappointed when the Census Bureau stopped publication of the Stat Abstract with the 2011 edition. The argument was that online databases eliminated the need for it and that the funds were better suited to support more worthy projects. That’s the bad news. The good news is that ProQuest, a publisher of databases and tools to do research, assumed responsibility for publishing the Stat Abstract.
Since 2012, the Stat Abstracts that it has produced are visually and intellectually the equals to previous editions. Government agencies and private organizations have continued to supply the necessary data, and the resulting tables look exactly like the originals. But the cost of the book is steep: $219. Still, for dedicated numbers freaks, it would be worth every penny.