Think the Census Is a Snooze? Think Again

All work and no play would make the Census Bureau a dull place. Luckily, even government statisticians know how to have a little fun.

Here are a few wacky facts they've found:

• Weaving was the second-most popular arts activity in 1997.

• In 1998, more Americans were injured by their toilet (48,964) than while using a hammer (42,426).

• Each American consumed an average of .3 gallons of buttermilk and 118 pounds of red meat in 1999.

That's just a sampling of the interesting trivia the census produces each year in its Statistical Abstract, which is compiled from the bureau's own surveys and those conducted by a host of trade associations. As offbeat as some of them may seem, the facts and figures come in handy for everyone from journalists to teachers to business owners.

"It's very important that data like this is pulled together in one place," said Steven S. Ross, an expert in statistics and an associate professor at the Columbia Journalism School. "It's very useful."

Divided into 30 sections, with several appendices, the abstract — compiled by the Statistical Compendia Branch of the bureau — includes everything from population data and vital statistics to information on entertainment, communication and food.

"We would rather work here than in any other part of the Census Bureau because of the diversity of things we're working with," said statistician Lars Johanson. "It's interesting."

What are some of those fascinating facts? Taiwan has the highest percentage of cell-phone subscribers of any nation: about 80 percent of the population, compared to 40 percent of Americans. And Kentucky had the highest percentage of cigarette smokers in the country in 1999 (29.7 percent of the state's population), while Utah had the fewest (13.9 percent).

Do you care? Does anyone? Surprisingly, many do.

"Industries lobby to get that stuff stuck on the census to get funding, to use for marketing purposes," Ross said.

Ordinary people find it valuable too, he said — especially if they're charting unfamiliar territory like starting a business, building a house, taking a new job, choosing a school for their child, or deciding how to invest their money.

"The fact that you have data you can then build on is very, very valuable," he said.

In fact, the department that puts the abstract together chooses data the public asks for, according to Johanson.

"Some of the material is based on user surveys we've done about which sections are the most popular. We do keep tabulations based on e-mails and telephone calls and keep a record to see which subjects are asked for more often."

But does everyone tell the truth on these surveys? Did 40 percent of adults really read books in 1999, as opposed to only 12 percent who played video games? Did 24 percent swim for exercise, while just 11 percent hit the golf course? And what constitutes the "artwork" 35 percent of respondents said they bought in 1997: original paintings or posters of Russell Crowe and Jennifer Lopez?

Ross and Johanson said the statistics are relatively accurate, though respondents might guess if they can't give a definite answer.

So the next time you want to know what state had the highest average life expectancy in 1990 (Hawaii, at 78 years) and which one had the lowest (Washington, D.C., at 68 years); or how many pounds of regular ice cream were eaten per person in 1999 (16.8); or how many gallons of coffee each person drank that year (25.7); or the answers to any quirky statistical questions, you know where to go.

Ross has a special soft spot for many of the facts and figures — like some of the old marriage data.

"There were more married women than married men in the U.S.," he said, laughing. "It turns out that widows were more likely to report they were still married than widowers, and women in ambiguous relationships were more likely to report they were married. I thought that was kind of cute."