Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#4, May 20, 1998


by Marylaine Block

You know, Congress is already squabbling about the next census - what questions to ask and how to ask them.

Those numbers have always given us our basic understanding of who we are. They count us by race, gender, age, and ethnic group, and measure the money we make and how we make it.

These numbers change over time - we were mostly farmers, then mostly city folk, until we became mostly suburbanites, who tired of nasty northern winters and fled south and west in search of sun.

If you want o know how many of us are divorced, own our own homes, or work in factories, you can find it in the Statistical Abstract of the United States, an annual summary of all the numbers the government has collected, along with historical data from previous years.

But if you believe our essence lies in how we choose to spend our money and time, that doesn't help, because the government doesn't care how many of us were given a birthday party at work (51 percent of women, 31 percent of men). The Census Bureau doesn't ask how many teenage boys shower twice a day (more than you think, I bet - 37 percent).

Fortunately, for these kinds of questions, there is a magazine* called American Demographics which, in analyzing market surveys, grocery store receipts and focus groups, gives us a much more personal glimpse of who we are.

Who knoweth the desires of our hearts? Jesus, may; American Demographics does for sure.

About 36 percent of us are afraid of flying. But lots more of us are terrified of public speaking (56 percent) and going to the dentist (42 percent).

We spend 3 times as much money on gambling as we do on movie attendance and theme parks combined.

We support 68 million cats and 56 million dogs, and enjoy spoiling them - sales of kitty treats have gone up by 23 percent since 1994. If they had treats for cars, we might buy those, too; after all, 67 percent of us love our cars enough to give them pet names.

When you break the data down by gender, things really get interesting: Asked what features are important for a new home, 35 percent of women require a state of the art kitchen (men, 22 percent) and 34 percent demand walk-in closets (men, 18 percent). On the other hand, 22 percent of men want a workshop (women, 7 percent), and 15 percent an entertainment center (women, 5 percent).

No wonder the average size of a new home has expanded by 450 square feet since 1975 - men and women apparently inhabit entirely different parts of it.

American Demographics confirms some popular stereotypes about the sexes - women give greeting cards twice as often as men, and men really do channel surf 3 times as often as women.

As you might expect, parachuting and rock climbing are not good ways for guys to meet girls.

And two thirds of American fathers claim to spend a lot of time with their children. (It would perhaps be carping to point out that only one third of mothers agree.)

Because American Demographics frequently maps its data, it also can give us an interesting insight into our communities.

Looking at my town, Davenport, Iowa** on these maps, I note that it's above average on snow and cold, in a state that's among the top 10 in binge drinking - facts that could be causally related.

But cold and alcohol aside, we reside in one of the 10 healthiest states, where 4 percent of us bike to work (myself included).

We are well above average in bowling lanes per capita. But we are not "bowling alone" - we are among the top 25 percent of communities with the most active civic life. If you thought midwesterners were upright and unrelentingly nice, well, the market surveys agree with you.

Try looking up your own community in these two sources. I promise you, you'll learn all kinds of things you didn't know about it.

Statistical Abstract is like Sgt. Joe Friday - "Just the facts, ma'am."

American Demographics is like the nosiest gossip in town.

Use them both and you'll see Americans in all our splendid variety.

* now defunct
** I have since moved to Greensboro, NC

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