Here are a hundred things worth knowing about our world and about the United States in historical and comparative perspective. Because a picture is worth quite a few words and providing information in graphical form reduces misperceptions, I present each of them via a chart, with some accompanying text.
1. Economic growth | 2. Government social programs | 3. Democracy | 4. Affluence and universalistic humanism | 5. Affluence and personal freedom | 6. Incomes of the poor | 7. Extreme poverty | 8. Equality of opportunity | 9. Education and earnings | 10. College completion | 11. Parents’ income and college completion | 12. Employment among women | 13. Employment among men | 14. Manufacturing employment | 15. Marriage | 16. Divorce | 17. Out-of-wedlock births | 18. Children living with two parents | 19. The class difference in family trends | 20. Health insurance coverage | 21. Health care spending and health outcomes | 22. Deaths among middle-aged whites | 23. Deaths from prescription opioid overdose and heroin overdose | 24. Obesity | 25. Household income stability | 26. Middle-class income growth | 27. Middle-class income growth between cohorts and within cohorts | 28. Subjective class position | 29. Government transfers to households with low income | 30. Retirement income for the elderly | 31. Social Security | 32. Affluence and religiosity | 33. Religiosity | 34. Tolerance toward homosexuals | 35. LGBT persons’ perceptions of social acceptance | 36. Hate crimes | 37. Participation in voluntary organizations | 38. Labor unions | 39. Income and happiness | 40. Happiness | 41. Loneliness among adults | 42. Loneliness among teenagers | 43. Social support | 44. Suicides | 45. Trust | 46. Homicides | 47. Violent crime | 48. War deaths | 49. Terrorism killings | 50. Incarceration | 51. Peaceful transfer of political power | 52. Americans haven’t moved away from the center in their political views | 53. Americans’ political representatives have moved away from the center | 54. Voter participation | 55. Election-year economic performance and presidential election outcomes | 56. The unrepresentative US Senate | 57. Income and political influence | 58. Political gridlock | 59. Income inequality | 60. Wealth inequality | 61. Many Americans don’t like the idea of big government | 62. Most Americans like the things government actually does | 63. Government revenues | 64. Tax progressivity | 65. Taxation of the rich | 66. Government size and government debt | 67. Government size and innovation | 68. Government size and economic growth | 69. Government size and personal liberty | 70. Inflation | 71. Migration | 72. Immigration | 73. Views about immigration | 74. Trade | 75. Imports | 76. Military spending | 77. Views on military intervention | 78. College completion among women and men | 79. The gender pay gap | 80. Pay among women and men | 81. Housework and child care by women and men | 82. Women in politics | 83. Rape | 84. Racial-ethnic diversity | 85. Life expectancy among African Americans and whites | 86. College completion among African Americans and whites | 87. Wealth among African Americans and whites | 88. Incarceration among African Americans and whites | 89. Police killings of unarmed African Americans and whites | 90. Whites’ embrace of African Americans | 91. Abortions | 92. Views on abortion policy | 93. Marijuana policy | 94. Views on marijuana policy | 95. State gun policy and gun deaths | 96. Views on gun policy | 97. Leisure time | 98. Carbon dioxide emissions | 99. Carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere | 100. Earth’s average temperature
1. Economic growth
The extent of human progress over the past two centuries is astonishing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in patterns of economic growth. Economic historians have estimates of gross domestic product (GDP) per person back to the year AD 1 for France and back a few centuries or more for some other countries. For most of the past two thousand years — and by extension, for virtually all of human history — the quantity of goods and services we produced barely budged. Then, in the 1800s, nations such as the United States, Germany, France, and a handful of others stumbled upon an institutional framework featuring markets, government provision of property rights and public goods, and the scientific method. This configuration has proved conducive to rapid and sustained economic advance.
People tend to dislike loss. The more income they have, the more insurance they are willing to purchase in order to minimize potential loss. Some types of insurance — insurance against low income in old age, against being unemployed, against having a serious illness or disability, and more — are most effectively provided by government. For this reason, as countries get richer they tend to expand public social (insurance) programs. In the world’s rich democratic nations these programs now account for around 25% of GDP. Even laggard countries, such as the United States, have experienced a large increase over the past century.
As people get richer, they tend to want more fairness in their society. Drawing on several decades of public opinion data from multiple countries, Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel have found that once people can be confident of survival and a decent standard of living, they tend to shift from a “traditionalist” worldview — emphasizing traditional sources of authority, religious dictates, traditional social roles, and the well-being of the group or community rather than that of the individual — to a “postmaterialist” or “emancipative” orientation. One element of postmaterialism is a desire for basic political rights. As countries have gotten richer, democracy has spread.
4. Affluence and universalistic humanism
Another element of the embrace of fairness is universalistic humanism, which deems all persons, including members of “outgroups,” as equally worthy of rights, opportunities, and respect. One result: women tend to be better off on measures of inclusion, justice, and security in nations that are more affluent.
5. Affluence and personal freedom
Another shift that comes with affluence is a growing emphasis on personal liberty. Most of us want the freedom to choose what to believe, how to behave, with whom to live, and so on. As material well-being increases, this desire for freedom comes to the fore.
6. Incomes of the poor
The United States is one of the world’s richest nations. Among the affluent longstanding democracies, only Norway has a higher per capita gross domestic product (GDP). Yet household income at the tenth percentile of the income ladder (90% of households have higher incomes, and 10% have lower incomes) is lower in the US than in many other wealthy nations. It’s only a little below some of the other countries, but $5,000 to $10,000 below the leaders — a sizable difference. And since the late 1970s it has barely increased at all.
7. Extreme poverty
The number of people living in extreme poverty — defined as an income of less than $1.90 per day — has decreased sharply in recent decades. The share of the world’s population in extreme poverty has fallen from more than 90% in the early 1800s to less than 10% today.
8. Equality of opportunity
There is no straightforward way to measure opportunity, so social scientists tend to infer from outcomes, such as income. This chart uses income data from a large sample of Americans born in the years 1978-83 and their parents. On the horizontal axis is the parents’ income rank — their income relative to the incomes of other parents — when the children were in their late teens. On the vertical axis is the average income ranking of the children of those parents when the children are in their 30s. The dot farthest to the left, for instance, shows the average income rank of children whose parents were in the lowest income percentile.
In a society with perfectly equal opportunity, the data points in the chart would form a flat line — children’s income position in adulthood would, on average, be the same no matter what their parents’ income was. Instead we see a line that slopes upward. Among people whose parents were on the bottom rungs of the income ladder, the average income ranking in young adulthood is relatively low. Among those whose parents were in the middle, the average is in the middle. And persons whose parents’ income was at the high end tend to end up at the high end themselves.
There is some movement between generations. Among children whose parents were in the lowest income percentile, the average ranking is the 33rd percentile. That means some end up at the bottom, some end up in the middle, and perhaps a few end up even higher. Similarly, among children whose parents were at the top of the income distribution, the average income ranking is around the 68th percentile, which means many of them don’t stay at the very top. Even so, the correlation between parents’ income and children’s income is quite strong.
9. Education and earnings
People with more education tend to have higher earnings. This is mainly, though not entirely, because they are more productive.
10. College completion
About 35% of Americans get a four-year (bachelor’s or equivalent) college degree. The share has risen steadily since 1950, when it was just 5%. Our rate of college completion puts us in the middle of the pack among the world’s rich democratic nations. That’s a significant change from just two decades ago, when the US stood above all but one other country. During the past decade and a half, college completion has been increasing more rapidly in many other countries than it has here.
11. Parents’ income and college completion
College completion has increased for all groups of Americans, but much less rapidly among those with low-income parents than among those with upper-middle-income or high-income parents.
12. Employment among women
The employment rate among American women of prime working age (age 25-54) rose from 35% in 1950 to 74% in 2000. This is one of the biggest and most consequential changes in American society over the past century. Though the timing has differed somewhat, this shift has occurred in all of the world’s rich democracies.
By 2016, the prime-age female employment rate in the US had fallen to 71%. This contrasts with developments in a number of other rich countries. In 2000, the US had the sixth highest prime-age women’s employment rate among these countries. A decade and a half later, it ranked sixteenth.
13. Employment among men
The employment rate among American men aged 25-54 has been falling for nearly half a century. The rate was around 94% in the 1950s and 1960s. Since 1970 it has declined steadily, dropping to 85% as of 2016. A similar decline has occurred in most other affluent democratic countries.
14. Manufacturing employment
Manufacturing has been a key source of jobs for more than a century. But since 1970 it has employed a steadily declining share of the working-age population in all rich democratic nations.
The share of American adults who are married has declined. Each line in this chart is for a cohort. For two of the cohorts marriage rates declined over time, while for the others they’ve been stable. But across cohorts, from one to the next, the married share has consistently fallen. Among the cohort born between 1925 and 1934, nearly nine in ten were married at age 35 to 44. Half a century later, among the cohort born between 1975 and 1984, the share of 35-to-44-year-olds who are married has dropped by 30 percentage points.
The divorce rate increased steadily but slowly during the first half of the twentieth century. In the 1960s and 1970s it shot up. Since 1980 it has fallen, though it remains far above its pre-1960s level.
17. Out-of-wedlock births
The share of children born to unmarried parents rose from 5% in 1960 to 40% in 2007. Since then it has held constant. The US is in the middle of the pack among the rich democratic countries both in the magnitude of its increase over time and in its current out-of-wedlock birth rate.
18. Children living with two parents
The share of American children living with both biological parents and the share living with two parents have each decreased by 15 to 20 percentage points over the past half century. The US stands out — at the low end — among the rich democratic countries.
19. The class difference in family trends
The decline of two-parent child rearing in America spans the socio-economic spectrum, but it is less pronounced among those with a four-year college degree.
20. Health insurance coverage
In 1960, about half of the world’s rich democratic nations had a significant share of citizens who were without health insurance. By the mid-1990s, the United States was the only one in which this was still true. That remains the case today.
The US has made there have been two significant leaps in insurance coverage in the past half century, one in the 1960s and the other in the 2010s. In both instances the driver was an expansion of government insurance provision or subsidization: Medicare and Medicaid were created in the mid-1960s, and the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, took full effect beginning in 2014.
21. Health care spending and health outcomes
The United States spends a lot of money on health care, and over the past generation our health expenditures have soared past those of other rich democratic nations. Yet the health outcomes we get aren’t as good as they should be. Life expectancy during this period dropped from the middle of the pack to the bottom. (The same is true for “healthy life expectancy.”) This isn’t due to our rates of change in obesity, smoking, or homicide, which have been similar to those of other countries. Death rates in America exceed those in most other rich countries for many different sources of death, from cardiovascular disease to neuropsychiatric conditions to infectious and parasitic diseases. And we see a similar pattern for infant mortality.
22. Deaths among middle-aged whites
Death rates have been falling over time. Although the rate of decrease has varied across countries and groups, all have experienced an absolute improvement. Around 1999, however, the fall in mortality reversed course among middle-aged whites in the United States.
23. Deaths from prescription opioid overdose and heroin overdose
The main reason for the rise in deaths among middle-aged whites is their growing use of opioid pain relievers. These pain relievers — oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl — became increasingly available via prescription beginning in the late 1990s. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, the most popular of these drugs, aggressively marketed it to primary care physicians and hospitals, encouraging them to prescribe it more frequently and in larger quantities. Prescriptions issued for opioid pain relievers increased gradually in the 1990s and then doubled from 1999 to the peak in 2011. Sales of opioid prescription drugs quadrupled from 1999 to 2014. As opioid pain relievers became more widely available in a nonstigmatized (prescription) form, more Americans began to use them. Because opioids are addictive, more people got hooked and became regular users. Some overdosed on the pain reliever itself, some created a toxic mix by combining it with another drug (such as a sleep aid), and some switched to heroin and eventually overdosed on that. Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids quadrupled between 2000 and 2014. In 2010, Oxycontin was reformulated to make it more resistant to overdose (by making it difficult to crush into a powder). This helped to reduce overdoses from prescription opioids, but in response heroin overdose deaths shot up.
Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30. For the US and about half of the other rich democratic countries, the available data are from actual measurements of people’s height and weight. For other nations, they are from self-reports by survey respondents, which are likely to underestimate the true obesity rate. While we can’t be sure of the exact position of each country, there is little doubt that the United States has the highest obesity rate. That rate has increased sharply since 1980, though no more so than in Australia, New Zealand, and possibly some other countries.
25. Household income stability
Large income declines among working-age American households are relatively common, and their incidence has increased over the past generation. In any given year, approximately 10% to 20% of working-age Americans will experience a severe income drop. The incidence of such declines has increased by perhaps three to five percentage points since the 1970s or the early 1980s. This is a result of changes in America’s economy and society. Competition among firms has intensified due to globalization of manufacturing and some services and to the appearance of new highly efficient firms such as Walmart and Amazon. Companies’ shareholders now demand constant profit improvement rather than steady long-term performance. These shifts force management to be hypersensitive to costs and constraints. The share of American households with two adults has decreased, particularly among those with less education and income. And America’s public insurance programs haven’t expanded sufficiently to keep up with the rise in economic insecurity.
26. Middle-class income growth
In the period between World War II and the mid-to-late 1970s, economic growth was good for Americans in the middle. As GDP per capita increased, so did family income at the 80th percentile, the 50th percentile (the median), and the 20th percentile. Indeed, they moved virtually in lockstep. Since then, however, household income has become decoupled from economic growth. As the economy has grown, relatively little of that growth has reached households in the middle, particularly those in the lower-middle.
27. Middle-class income growth between cohorts and within cohorts
The income data in the previous chart are from an annual survey of representative sample of American households. Each year the sample consists of a new group; the survey doesn’t track the same people as they move through the life course. If we interpret that chart as showing what happens to typical American families over their life course, we’ll conclude that they see very little increase in income as they age. That’s incorrect. In any given year, some of those with below-median income are young. Their wages and income are low because they are in the early stages of the work career and/or because they’re single. Over time, many will experience a significant income rise, getting pay increases or partnering with someone who also has earnings, or both.
This chart illustrates the point. The lower line shows median income among families with a “head” aged 25 to 34. The top line shows median income among the same cohort of families twenty years later, when their heads are aged 45 to 54. Consider the year 1979, for instance. The lower line tells us that in 1979 the median income of families with a 25-to-34-year-old head was about $58,000 (in 2013 dollars). The data point for 1979 in the top line looks at the median income of that same group of families twenty years later, in 1999, when they are 45 to 54 years old. This is the peak earning stage for most people, and their median income is now about $91,000.
In each year, the gap between the two lines is roughly $33,000. This tells us that the incomes of middle-class Americans tend to increase substantially as they move from the early years of the work career to the peak years.
Between the mid-1940s and the mid-1970s, the median income of families in early adulthood (the lower line) rose steadily. In the mid-1940s median income for these young families was around $27,000; by the mid-1970s it had doubled. Americans during this period experienced income gains over the life course, but they also tended to have higher incomes than their predecessors, both in their early work years and in their peak years. That’s because the economy was growing at a healthy clip and the economic growth was trickling down to Americans in the middle.
After the mid-1970s, this steady gain disappeared. From the mid-1970s to 2013 the median income of families with a 25-to-34-year-old head was flat. They continued to achieve income gains during the life course. (Actually, we don’t yet know about those who started out after the mid-1990s, as they’re just now beginning to reach age 45 to 54. The question marks in the chart show what their incomes will be if the historical trajectory holds true.) But the improvement across cohorts that characterized the period from the mid-1940s through the 1970s — each cohort starting higher and ending higher than earlier ones — disappeared.
28. Subjective class position
If Americans are asked what class they think they’re in, most will say the middle class. But if asked to choose between the upper, middle, working and lower class, only 41% say the middle class, according to the General Social Survey (GSS). Roughly the same share choose the working class. Few pick upper or lower.
This pattern hasn’t changed since the 1970s. The United States is now a much richer country, more Americans attend and complete college, and more work in white-collar jobs. Yet, perhaps because of sluggish income growth over the past generation, the share of Americans who consider themselves middle class hasn’t increased. Indeed, since the mid-2000s it has decreased a bit.
29. Government transfers to households with low income
In US households on the bottom fifth of the income ladder, “market income” — earnings plus other private cash income (gifts, alimony, capital gains) — averages about $10,000 a year. Public insurance programs add another $10,000, roughly doubling the income of these households, on average.
30. Retirement income for the elderly
The best information on current and future income trends for elderly Americans is from the Social Security Administration’s MINT (Modeling Income in the Near Term) projections. This chart shows projected income for retirement-age households in the bottom fifth of incomes (“Q1”) and in the next fifth (“Q2”). Among households in the bottom fifth, median income for those age 65 in 2007 was $11,000. This is projected to rise to $14,000 in 2037. Among households in the lower-middle fifth, the projection is for a rise from $24,000 in 2007 to $28,000 in 2037. So the best available estimates suggest that despite falling savings and the shift from defined-benefit to defined-contribution employer pensions, the incomes of elderly Americans aren’t likely to decline in absolute terms. Instead, they will increase.
On the other hand, the projections also suggest that these income levels will rise less rapidly than GDP per capita. Retirement incomes for many ordinary Americans will, in other words, fall farther and farther behind growth of the economy.
Social Security is funded in a “pay as you go” fashion: money paid to current recipients comes directly from the payroll taxes paid by current working Americans. As the large baby boom generation retires, the number of elderly recipients per working-age person will rise, putting pressure on this funding arrangement. But contrary to frequent assertions by political pundits and journalists, Social Security isn’t in crisis. The current projection is that its cost will rise by about 1% of GDP between now and 2035 and remain flat thereafter. This can be paid for via some relatively minor changes, such as an increase in the share of earnings subject to the payroll tax, a small increase in the payroll tax rate, a small increase in the retirement age, and/or a reduction in the rate of benefit increase over time.
32. Affluence and religiosity
Scholars have long predicted that religion would eventually be displaced by science. As we learn more and more about how the world works, there is less need to resort to belief in a divine being. And as science enables greater economic productivity, want and misery decrease, reducing the need for religion as a salve. In nations that have experienced significant economic growth over the past century, particularly those that have created public insurance programs to ensure that some of the growth reaches the most vulnerable, religiosity has tended to decline. We also can see this if we compare across countries at a given point in time: in nations that are richer, fewer people are very religious.
An array of measures suggest that Americans have been following the pattern of secularization visible in all other rich democratic nations. The clearest way to see this is to focus on native-born Americans and to separate them by cohort, as a rise in immigration by Catholic Latinos since the mid-1960s has masked the extent of the decrease in religiosity among native-born Americans. Each line in this graph shows the share in a cohort who report attendance at religious services at least once a month. The cohorts are identified by birth decade. In each cohort, church attendance tends to be stable throughout the life course. But it has decreased from one cohort to the next. Among those born between 1915 and 1924, about 60% attended once a month or more. Among those born between 1985 and 1994, only 35% do. The same pattern holds for intensity of religious affiliation and for belief in God.
34. Tolerance toward homosexuals
Americans’ acceptance of homosexuality has increased steadily since 1990. A growing share of Americans say homosexuality should be accepted by society, gay and lesbian sex should be legal, homosexuals should have equal job opportunity rights, and same-sex marriage should be legal.
In 2013, the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans about their attitudes toward LGBT persons. One of the questions asked was “How much social acceptance is there today of …?” A majority felt that bisexual women and men, lesbians, and gay men are at least somewhat accepted. But only a third or less felt that each of these groups is accepted a lot. And the perceived level of acceptance for transgender persons was very low; only 3% believe there is a lot of acceptance, and another 18% perceive some acceptance.
36. Hate crimes
Since the mid-1990s, the FBI has compiled reports of hate crimes from state and local police offices. Because many hate crimes aren’t reported, these data understate the frequency of such crimes. But they may give us a reasonably accurate picture of trends, because the degree of underreporting isn’t likely to have changed much over time. The incidence of hate crimes against Asians, Hispanics, whites, and disabled persons has been quite low over the two decades. For Jews, LGBTQs, and blacks it is higher, but the trend has been down. Hate crimes targeting Muslims jumped temporarily in 2001, following the September 11 terrorist attacks, and have been flat since then.
37. Participation in voluntary organizations
Civil society has long been a core institution in the United States. Americans have been active in forming, joining, and participating in a wide range of civic groups, organizations, and activities. According to the best available data, civic engagement increased significantly in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. In the 1960s that trend reversed course, and civic participation declined at least through the end of the century. One key cause appears to be the rise of various competitors for people’s time, including women’s movement into paid work, suburban sprawl, television, the internet, and social media. Another contributor is cultural shifts, from the impact of the Korean and Vietnam wars to materialism and individualism to growing perceptions of collective powerlessness. There are exceptions to the decline, such as volunteering, self-help groups, internet-based forms of engagement, and possibly social movements.
38. Labor unions
In the United States, union membership peaked in the mid-1950s and has fallen steadily since. It has declined in most other rich democratic countries as well, but in the US unionization was comparatively low even at its peak, and that remains true today.
39. Income and happiness
If we look across individuals or countries, those with higher income tend to be happier. This used to be conventional wisdom. Then, in the mid-1970s, Richard Easterlin posited that income boosts happiness only up to a point, after which it yields no further benefit. This came to be known as the “Easterlin paradox.” Recent studies with improved data tell us that the old view is correct. Additional income increases happiness less at high income levels than at low income levels, but the increase does continue at high levels. This chart shows the pattern across individuals in the United States. We also see this across countries at a particular point in time and over time within nations.
The average levels of happiness and life satisfaction among American adults have been essentially flat since the early 1970s, perhaps with a decline since around 2000.
41. Loneliness among adults
Loneliness is commonly measured via answers to questions such as: How often do you feel that you lack companionship? How often do you feel that there are people you can turn to? How often do you feel that there are people who really understand you? Do you have someone with whom you’re comfortable discussing important matters? Do you have someone who can help you if you’re sick, or if you need money? If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not? How satisfied are you with your friendships? Would you like to spend more time with friends? Reviewing the available data for the period from 1970 to 2010, Claude Fischer finds that fewer than 10% of American adults reported being lonely according to these types of questions, and there was no change through these years.
A more direct question, asked only a handful of times over the past half century, is “During the past few weeks, did you ever feel very lonely or remote from other people?” The share responding yes to this question decreased in the 1960s and 1970s and then increased in the 1980s and 1990s. There was little or no net change from the early 1960s to the early 2000s. Unfortunately, we have no comparable data for recent decades.
42. Loneliness among teenagers
In recent years there has been growing concern about the impact of social media on loneliness among teenagers. The period in which we are likely to observe effects is after 2007, when the first iPhone was released. In her book iGen, Jean Twenge examines data from the Monitoring the Future surveys of American teenagers. There has indeed been a significant rise since 2007 in the share of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders who say “A lot of times I feel lonely.” Twenge also notes that the increase has been larger among girls than among boys. This, she says, is what we would predict: “Girls use social media more often, giving them additional opportunities to feel excluded and lonely when they see their friends or classmates getting together without them.”
Since the mid-2000s the Gallup World Poll has regularly asked “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?” The share responding yes is lower in the United States than in most of the other countries, but the US position is heavily influenced by its large decline during the great recession in 2008-09, so it may not tell us much about Americans’ comparative degree of isolation.
About three times as many Americans die by suicide as by homicide. The suicide rate in the Us is about average among the affluent democratic nations. It hasn’t changed much over the past half century, though there was a slight dip in the 1990s followed by an equally-slight rise since 2000.
Public opinion surveys often ask respondents whether “most people can be trusted” or “you can’t be too careful in life.” The share who choose the first option is an indicator of the degree of generalized interpersonal trust in the society. Research has linked trust with economic growth, healthy democracy, tolerance, charity, community, and happiness. Government is one of our most important institutions, and over time it has played a growing, and increasingly visible, role in the lives of citizens in affluent democratic nations. The degree to which people have trust or confidence in their government may therefore influence the degree to which they trust other individuals. Americans’ trust in their government was high through the 1950s, but it dropped sharply due to the Vietnam War (1964-75) and Watergate (1974), and since then it has decreased a bit more. The over-time pattern for generalized interpersonal trust is very similar.
Pundits routinely opine that we live in a violent era, and lots of Americans fear violence. This is understandable. Fear of violence is stoked by policy makers, aspiring or already in office, who aim to sound tough on crime. But there’s a more basic reason. Few of us have any clue about actual rates of violence, and we tend to estimate the probability of something occurring based on the ease with which we can recall examples of it. Given our near-constant access to the internet, social media, television, and radio, we are bombarded with examples of violence — terrorist attacks, mass shootings, police killings of unarmed African Americans, gang violence in urban ghettos, sexual assaults on college campuses, brutal civil wars, dictatorships committing genocide. This makes it likely we’ll perceive the level of violence to be much greater than it actually is.
We have estimates of the homicide rate in the United States going back to 1700 (with reliable statistics beginning in the 1930s). There has been a marked decline.
47. Violent crime
The long downward trend in violence in the US was interrupted in the 1960s and 1970s. All four types of violent crime — homicide, rape, aggravated assault, and robbery — increased sharply beginning in the 1960s. Then, in the early 1990s, they began to fall. The homicide rate dropped all the way back to its 1960 level, and robbery isn’t far behind. Rape and aggravated assault have declined less rapidly but still a good bit.
48. War deaths
Since the 1950s there has been a dramatic decline in deaths from wars between and within countries.
49. Terrorism killings
The only noteworthy exception to the downward trend in violence is terrorist killings. The number has jumped sharply since 2010. The level, it’s worth emphasizing, remains very low.
The United States imprisons a larger share of its population, by far, than any other affluent democratic nation. And that rate increased dramatically from 1970 through 2007. Part of the increase owes to a rise in crime, but crime has fallen since the early 1990s. And while the US has a comparatively high homicide rate, its rates of assault, rape, robbery, and other types of crime aren’t particularly high relative to other countries.
51. Peaceful transfer of political power
One of the most remarkable features of America’s democracy has been its durability. For more than two centuries, the losing candidates in elections to the presidency, the House of Representatives, and the Senate have peacefully allowed the winning candidates to take office. The only exception was the 1860 presidential election: after Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November 1860, seven southern states declared secession from the country before Lincoln took office in March of 1861.
52. Americans haven’t moved away from the center in their political views
The General Social Survey (GSS) regularly asks a representative sample of American adults to place themselves on “a seven-point scale on which the political views that people might hold are arranged from extremely liberal to extremely conservative.” In the first year of the survey, 1974, the distribution of views looked like a “normal curve,” with a large share in the middle and fewer out toward the extremes. The distribution of political views in 2016, the most recent GSS year, is very similar. Our political orientations haven’t spread apart to any appreciable degree. The same is true if we look at views on specific policies.
53. Americans’ political representatives have moved away from the center
While Americans haven’t spread apart in their political views or their opinions on policy questions, elected representatives in the two political parties have. The owes partly to the fact that the Democratic and Republican parties have each become more ideologically cohesive, with conservative southerners moving to the Republican Party in recent decades and liberals in the rest of the country switching to the Democrats. This chart shows trends in votes by lawmakers on a wide array of issues related to the economy and government intervention. The data points are the average vote score on this measure for Democratic and Republican members of the House and the Senate. Both parties have moved away from the center over the past half century, particularly since the late 1970s.
54. Voter participation
Only about half of eligible Americans vote in presidential-year elections. In “off-year” elections, only a third do. These shares are lower than in most other rich longstanding-democratic nations. On the other hand, contrary to what pundits sometimes assert, there has been little decline in US voter turnout over the past half century.
55. Election-year economic performance and presidential election outcomes
Presidential election outcomes can be predicted fairly well using just a single measure of economic performance: income growth in the months preceding the election. On the vertical axis in this graph is the incumbent-party candidate’s popular vote margin. On the horizontal axis is the growth rate of real disposable personal income per capita in the middle two quarters (April through September) of the election year, adjusted for how long the incumbent party has been in office. This simple model does a very good job of predicting the vote outcome.
56. The unrepresentative US Senate
A core principal of democracy is equality of opportunity for representation. The US Senate falls well short of this ideal, as Americans who live in low-population states are far overrepresented relative to their counterparts in high-population states. The 22 least-populated states have a total population equal to that of California. The 39 million Americans in those 22 states are represented by 44 senators, while the 39 million Americans in California are represented by two.
57. Income and political influence
High-income Americans are more likely than low-income Americans to get policies they want. The preferences of Americans near the top of the income distribution are positively correlated with policies adopted by congress and the president (solid line). The preferences of those with low incomes are, by contrast, uncorrelated with actual policy choices (dashed line).
58. Political gridlock
America’s founders structured the country’s government to safeguard against excessive power of the majority and against radical change. They did so by creating a large number of “veto points” — points at which proposed policy changes can be blocked: a directly-elected executive (president); two legislative bodies (the House of Representatives and Senate) with equal power; a judiciary with considerable leeway to void legislation by ruling it unconstitutional; and a highly federalized government, with state and local governments that have substantial decision-making power. In addition, for the past century the Senate has operated under a self-imposed rule — the filibuster — that allows as few as 41 of its 100 members to block proposed policy changes. With so many veto points, it can be difficult for the majority to implement its policy preferences. That difficulty is accentuated where there are two dominant ideologically-cohesive and ideologically-distinct political parties, each supported by roughly half of the electorate, one of which adopts an extreme oppositional stance. In such a context, a veto-point-heavy government structure may cross the line from caution to gridlock. The number of laws passed by congress has steadily decreased over the past half century.
59. Income inequality
Income inequality has risen sharply in recent decades. Its key feature has been a growing separation between the incomes of the rich and those of everyone else. A common measure is the share of income that goes to the top 1%. During the middle of the 20th century, that share decreased slowly but persistently. It’s since the late 1970s that we observe a big jump in inequality. The top 1%’s income share increased nearly as rapidly during recent decades in Canada, Ireland, South Korea, and the United Kingdom as in the US. It rose significantly but less rapidly in Australia, Finland, New Zealand, Norway, and Portugal. It increased only a little or not at all in Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
60. Wealth inequality
The top 1%’s share of the wealth decreased in the first half of the twentieth century, then was flat until around 1980, and since then has increased a bit. While France, Sweden, and the UK began the twentieth century with more wealth inequality than the US, their decline was sharper and it continued for longer, until 1970. As a result, America’s richest 1% today hold a larger share of the country’s wealth than their counterparts in these other nations.
61. Many Americans don’t like the idea of big government
Many Americans don’t trust that government will act effectively, only sometimes or never trust the government to “do what is right,” and think government waste is commonplace. As a result, a significant share of Americans favor limited government in the abstract. For instance, when asked whether they would “rather have a smaller government providing fewer services or a bigger government providing more services,” usually more than half say they prefer a smaller government providing fewer services. And nearly half say “the less government the better” as opposed to “there are more things that government should be doing.”
62. Most Americans like the things government actually does
While many Americans are ideologically conservative when it comes to the size and scope of government, most are programmatically progressive. They dislike big government in the abstract, but they like a lot of the things government actually does, including most public social programs.
63. Government revenues
With the introduction of the federal income tax in 1913, government revenues began a steady rise, from 8% of GDP to a peak of 35% in 2000. Since then they have been flat. The main source of government revenue is taxes. Tax revenues have hovered around 25% of GDP for the past 50 years.
64. Tax progressivity
If households with high pretax incomes pay a larger share of their income in taxes than do those with low incomes, we call the tax system “progressive.” If the rich and poor pay a similar share of their incomes, the tax system is termed “proportional.” If the poor pay a larger share than the rich, the tax system is “regressive.” This chart shows average effective tax rates (taxes paid divided by pretax income) in the United States at various points along the pretax income distribution. These tax rates include all types of taxes at all levels of government. The overall tax system is progressive, though only mildly so.
65. Taxation of the rich
Statutory tax rates aren’t necessarily a good proxy for effective tax rates. Hiding behind statutory rates are an assortment of loopholes, deductions, and “tax expenditures.” These reduce the effective tax rate on persons or households with high incomes by shielding some, potentially much, of their pretax income from taxation. Warren Buffett’s famous discovery that he pays a lower effective federal income tax rate than his office staff illustrates the point. Moreover, different parts of high incomes — salary, business income, capital gains — may be taxed at different rates. This chart shows the top statutory US federal income tax rate along with the effective federal tax rate paid (on average) by the top 1% of taxpayers. The top statutory rate dropped sharply in the early 1960s and in the 1980s. The effective tax rate on the top 1% fell too, but far less.
66. Government size and government debt
In the world’s rich democratic nations, government taxes and spends a significant portion — 30% to 60% — of economic output. This isn’t, for the most part, a consequence of rent-seeking special interests or narrow-minded bureaucrats expanding their turf. It’s a product of affluence. As people and nations get richer, they are willing to allocate more money to insure against economic risks such as income loss and unexpected large expenses. They also are willing to pay more for fairness — extension of opportunity and security to the less fortunate. But as government gets bigger, does the economy suffer? One way in which it might is if the government doesn’t generate enough revenues to pay for its expenditures. This might lead to accumulation of a large debt, the repayment of which diverts resources away from productive economic activity. As it turns out, that’s not what we observe when we look across the world’s affluent democratic nations. There is no correlation between government expenditures and government debt.
67. Government size and innovation
Another way that big government might hurt the economy is by stifling innovation with heavy taxes. But here too we see no evidence of such a pattern when we look across the world’s rich nations.
68. Government size and economic growth
Data on government revenues are available for the United States going back to the early 1900s. The first chart here shows that revenues rose from the 1910s through the 1990s and then leveled off. All told, government revenues increased by approximately 25 percentage points, from less than 10% of GDP to around 35%. The second chart shows gross domestic product (GDP) per capita all the way back to 1890. The data are displayed in log form in order to focus on the rate of growth. The straight line represents what the data would look like if the economic growth rate had been perfectly constant. The actual data points hug this line. In other words, despite occasional slowdowns and speedups, the rate of per-capita GDP growth in the United States has been essentially constant for the past 120 years. We’ve gone from being a country with relatively small government to one with medium-size government, and in the course of doing so, we’ve suffered no slowdown in economic growth.
69. Government size and personal liberty
Does a big-taxing and -spending government reduce our ability to pursue the kind of life we wish to lead? The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has assembled a “personal freedom index” that measures legal protection, security, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, freedom of association, assembly, and civil society, freedom of expression, and freedom in relationships. The data suggest no incompatibility between big government and individual liberty.
Inflation was a significant problem in the 1970s and early 1980s. However, since 1990 the average inflation rate in rich democratic nations has been just 2.2%. Since 2000 it’s been 1.8%, and since 2010 only 1.4%.
About 3.5% of the world’s population live outside their country of birth. If immigrants were a country, it would be the fifth largest. Major source nations include India (16 million), Mexico (12 million), China (10 million), the Philippines (5 million), and Syria (5 million). The chief recipients are the world’s affluent countries, where about 70% of migrants go. There’s been a gradual rise in migration since 1980.
America has long been a land of immigrants. The US population consists almost entirely of the descendants of immigrants; Native Americans are only about 1%. And the US is home to more current migrants than any other country. The immigrant share of the US population peaked in the early 1900s, then fell sharply, then rose again beginning in the 1970s. The level today, around 13% of the population, is close to the peak of a century ago. While America hosts the largest number of foreign-born persons, our foreign-born population share is only middle-of-the-pack among the rich democratic nations.
73. Views about immigration
The share of Americans who say they favor decreasing immigration has rarely exceeded 50%, and it currently is at its lowest level since polling began in the mid-1970s.
There was very little trade across geopolitical borders prior to the late 1800s, and large-scale international trade is a phenomenon of the post-World War II era.
The US has tended to import less than most other affluent nations. That isn’t because we’ve had a more protectionist policy approach to trade; it owes mainly to our large size, which means there are plenty of domestic producers in most product markets, and to the fact that it costs more to transport goods from Europe to the United States than from one country within Europe to another. While the level of imports varies widely across these countries, there’s been considerable similarity in the trend over time. In most of them we observe a steady increase since 1970. Despite the rise in imports from China since 2000, America hasn’t experienced an unusually large surge in imports overall, neither compared to the past generation as a whole nor relative to other affluent nations.
76. Military spending
Though the US government taxes and spends less than its counterparts in most other rich democratic countries, there is one area in which its spending is comparatively high: the military. At the same time, it’s worth noting that American military expenditures have decreased significantly over the past half century, from an average of 8% of GDP in the 1960s to 6% in the 1980s to 4% thus far in the 2010s.
77. Views on US military intervention
The share of Americans who believe the US should “mind its own business internationally” has been higher in recent years than at any point in the past half century. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks turned the focus of rich countries toward domestic security and anti-terrorism. The “weapons of mass destruction” mistake in Iraq has heightened concern about whether the quality of information we typically have is sufficient to justify intervention. The economic and political ascendance of China and Russia reduce the likelihood of UN Security Council approval of humanitarian intervention. The US action in Iraq has shifted sentiment against unilateral intervention. The results of the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya invasions have reduced confidence in humanitarian intervention’s potential to improve well-being. Moreover, going forward, it’s possible that Americans will come to think everything can be solved with drones instead of US soldiers.
78. College completion among women and men
In school enrollment and completion, American women have not only caught up with men but passed them. Equality was reached in college completion by the early 1990s, and by 2017 women led men by 7 percentage points.
79. The gender pay gap
Women tend to get paid less than men. After not changing much in the 1960s and 1970s, the gender pay gap decreased significantly in the 1980s and 1990s. Since 2000 it has continued to fall, but less rapidly. The United States has a larger pay gap than most other rich democratic countries.
80. Pay among women and men
Why did the gender pay gap shrink in the 1980s and 1990s? To some degree, this was a function of women’s rising educational attainment, their movement into traditionally male-dominated occupations, and declining pay discrimination. But the main cause was stagnation in male pay.
81. Housework and child care by women and men
As more and more women moved into the paid work force in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the time married mothers spend on housework and child care steadily decreased. Then, however, the decline stopped. Married fathers’ contribution increased until around 2000. It has been flat since then. The gap is now about 15 hours per week, down from 40 in the mid-1960s.
82. Women in politics
Some “female” characteristics seem well-suited for top political decision-making positions: empathy, listening, willingness to compromise. However, women are underrepresented in top elected legislative positions in the United States. There has been significant progress since 1990, but the level remains fairly low. And the US lags behind nearly all other rich democratic nations.
Rape data from victimization surveys suggest a significant decline since the mid-1990s. Data from police reports go back farther in time, but they are less reliable because many rapes aren’t reported. They too suggest a reduction, though to a level that remains higher than half a century ago.
84. Racial-ethnic diversity
According to Census Bureau projections, by the middle of this century non-Hispanic whites will no longer be a majority of the US population. In this respect the nation is following in California’s footsteps.
85. Life expectancy among African Americans and whites
In 1960, the average black American lived 63.5 years. By 2014 that had increased to 75.5 years, just 3.5 years shy of the average among whites.
86. College completion among African Americans and whites
The share of African Americans with a four-year college degree has increased steadily and rapidly over the past half century. Whites have experienced a similar rise, so the size of the gap has remained fairly constant.
87. Wealth among African Americans and whites
Median household wealth for African American households is less than $10,000. And not only has there been no closing of the racial wealth gap, but we see no absolute improvement either.
88. Incarceration among African Americans and whites
In 1960, young black men were more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to serve time in jail or prison. As the country adopted a “lock ’em up” approach to crime control beginning in the 1970s, this racial gap shot up. In 2000, 12% of African American males aged 20-24 were incarcerated, versus 2% of whites. The disparity has lessened a bit since then, but it remains huge.
89. Police killings of unarmed African Americans and whites
In 2015, 2016, and 2017, police killed a total of 2,940 persons across the United States, 273 of whom were unarmed. Though rare, the incidence was higher among African Americans than among whites. There are no comparable data for earlier years.
90. Whites’ embrace of African Americans
Racism and discrimination continue to exist, but direct indicators of whites’ attitudes toward African Americans and toward their inclusion suggest progress. Nearly all whites now say they would vote for a qualified African American for president, and quite a few did so in 2008 and 2012. About three-quarters say they’d be willing to live in a half-black neighborhood. A sizable majority say they oppose housing discrimination and that blacks aren’t lazy. Smaller but increased shares say it’s okay for blacks “to push where not wanted” and okay for a close relative to marry a black person.
The Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion across the United States. The incidence of abortion increased following that decision, but it has fallen steadily since 1980. It isn’t clear what has caused the fall in abortion, but likely contributors include reduced sexual activity among teens and women in their early twenties, increased use of contraceptives, greater use of contraceptives that are more effective, reduced access to abortion clinics, and state laws mandating counseling or waiting periods.
92. Views on abortion policy
Since the 1970s, the General Social Survey (GSS) has asked Americans whether they think abortion should be legal under various circumstances. Around 35-45% hold a strong “pro-choice” position, believing that abortion should be legal regardless of the reason the woman wants it. Around 15-25% hold a strong “pro-life” position, believing abortion shouldn’t be legal even if the pregnancy resulted from rape. Both of these shares have increased over the past few decades, but only a little.
93. Marijuana policy
America’s marijuana policy is a complex hodgepodge. Under federal government law, production, sale, possession, and use of marijuana are illegal and subject to criminal penalty. In some states, that’s true of state law as well. But there are a number of exceptions. In some states, decriminalization is the law: possession and use of small amounts of marijuana is either legal or subject to civil penalty (fine) rather than criminal penalty. In some others, decriminalization is the de facto policy approach, in that the penalty imposed for possession of small amounts tends to be lenient. In some states, production, sale, possession, and use of small amounts for authorized medical purposes is legal. Some states have both decriminalization and legal medical marijuana. Finally, in 8 states plus Washington, DC, production, sale, possession, and use of small amounts for recreational purposes is legal.
94. Views on marijuana policy
Most Americans prefer decriminalization to prohibition. In 2014, 76% responded “no” to a Pew Research Center poll question asking “If marijuana use is not legalized, do you think people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana should serve time in jail?”
What about legalization? In the 1970s and 1980s, only a fifth of Americans were in favor. Since 1990 that share has steadily increased. Today 64% say they are in favor. Note, though, that while the survey question is about legalization, some or many respondents may have in mind decriminalization rather than true legalization. A 2016 survey found that only 20% favor legal marijuana use with no restrictions on the amount and no medical authorization.
95. State gun policy and gun deaths
States with stronger gun regulations tend to have fewer gun deaths (homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths). A recent, thorough cross-state analysis concluded that universal background checks are associated with lower gun killings, while many other regulations aren’t.
96. Views on gun policy
There is little chance the federal government will adopt a policy of prohibition. Fewer than half of Americans favor a ban on assault weapons and only a quarter support a ban on handguns. Even if there were more public support, the National Rifle Association (NRA) could probably ensure blockage of legislation in the House or Senate or via a presidential veto. And in the unlikely event that a ban became law, the courts might well rule it unconstitutional. Another option is to more tightly restrict gun purchases. This tends to have the support of a healthy majority of Americans. Nearly 90%, for instance, support requiring a universal background check before a person is allowed to buy a gun, and 75% support requiring a police permit.
97. Leisure time
The key source of rising affluence in the world’s rich democratic countries has been increased productivity. This has allowed us to spend less time working.
98. Carbon dioxide emissions
Emissions of carbon dioxide have increased steadily since 1750, when the industrial revolution began. The rise has been especially pronounced since 1950.
99. Carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere
As carbon dioxide emissions have increased, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased. We have direct measurement of CO2 atmospheric concentration only since 1959, but data from ice core drilling in Antarctica suggest that in the 800,000 years prior to 1750, it never exceeded 300 ppm (parts per million). Between 1750 and 1959 it rose from 280 to 316. Between 1959 and 2016 it increased from 316 to 404.
100. Earth’s average temperature
If the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from earth is larger than natural processes can remove, it will trap more infrared radiation in the atmosphere, leading to a rise in temperature. Also, warm air holds more water vapor than cold air, and water vapor causes additional trapping of heat. The planet should therefore be warming. We have direct measurements of the earth’s temperature beginning in 1880. The average temperature has risen sharply, particularly since 1950. Nearly all climate scientists agree that the main cause is the rise in carbon dioxide emissions.