Ideal still alive through government abstract book

The 1999 edition of the "Statistical Abstract of the United States," published by the Census Bureau, is just out, as always one of the great books of the world, this time with a kicker. There are 1,447 tables a numerical treasure chest of social and economic Americana, worth its weight in gold, an appreciable sum even with gold selling at less than half its 1980 price (Table 1171). The Census folks always make an effort to keep up with the times. New tables this year include ones about violence in schools (down), ownership of mutual funds (up), access to the Internet in schools (way up, and expected to be 95 percent in the year 2000), and cigarette consumption (down, but with about 30 percent of the adult population still wedded to the weed).

Normally the data in the Abstract go back in time for a decade or two. This year there is a surprise package: Section 34, titled "Century Statistics," containing 36 tables, many of them going back to the year 1900.

What's the biggest American story in a century loaded with numbers?

Is it that America became the richest nation in the world, with a $45,000-per-year median family income in 1997? I don't think so; all the advanced nations and most less developed nations have become richer, too. How about cars? In 1900 there were 8,000 motor vehicles in America, in 1950 there were 49 million, and by 2000 more than 210 million but there are many more cars everywhere. Relative expenditures for food have dropped sharply here, from 24 percent of disposable income in 1929 to 11 percent now, but the direction if not the magnitude of such change has been going on in many other places.

So too with health indicators. Rates of tuberculosis, malaria, typhoid, diphtheria, whooping cough, measles and polio have dropped dramatically, in many cases to the vanishing point. Five-year-survival rates for all cancers have gone from 52 percent in the early 1980s to 61 percent in the early 1990s. The infant mortality rate dropped from 100 per 1,000 in 1910, to 7 today. Maternal death rates per pregnancy have dropped from 61 per 10,000 in 1915 to 0.8 today. But medical progress is going on all over the world.

These indicators of progress are the fruits of modernism. America was a leader in many aspects of the process, but was by no means a unique player.

But there is one way in which America is very, very different from the rest of the world: America is the only nation in modern history that took in nearly unlimited numbers of legal immigrants.

The population of the United States in 1900 was 76 million. In 2000 the count should come in at about 276 million. That's 200 million additional people and in a country with a birth rate that has sharply decreased.

About 45 million legal immigrants came to America in the 20th century. More than 14 million of those arrived from 1900 to 1920, mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe, which is about the number that will arrive from 1980 to 2000, mostly from Asia and Latin America. But in 1900, about 15 percent of Americans were foreign born. Today, with all the belly-aching about immigration, the rate is about 10 percent.

Much, if not most, of the population gain came from 20th century immigrants and their descendants. The effects are seen and felt everywhere. The population of California was 1.5 million in 1900 and 32.6 million in 1998. The Florida population was.5 million then and 14.9 million now. New York City was the largest city then, with 3.4 million people, and is the largest city now with 7.3 million. Back in 1900, the number of Americans was about half that of the total of the four most populous countries in Europe: Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany. Today there are more Americans than people in all of those countries combined.

Why did it happen? People wanted to come here, and they were permitted to come. They wanted to come because there was liberty and opportunity. (Ask your next foreign-born cab driver why he's here.) They were allowed to come because the American ethos admittedly sometimes harshly honored in the breach was a belief in liberty and opportunity for all.

(In fact, the answer to many of the most important questions about America is elemental: It's liberty, stupid. And, that by the way, is not always good news, only true on balance, a topic for a later column.)

Has such growth been good for America and Americans? I think so. It has changed the nation from what was a remarkably vigorous continental enclave of Northwestern European folk and sub-Saharan slave descendants to an astounding universal nation, with people from everywhere, powerful and emulated beyond belief. Only such a large, polyglot nation, with liberty at its bedrock, could plausibly have gained the 20th century's ultimate prize, summed up by the encomium "the American Century."

Only such an influential nation can aspire to lead the world of the future and have the preemptive gall, and hope, to lay claim to naming rights for the next hundred years: "The Liberty Century." That, of course, will be duly chronicled in the annual edition of the Statistical Abstract, issued at the end of the year 2099. (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn. Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Values Matter Most" and is the host of the weekly public television program "Think Tank." Send comments to him via e-mail at

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