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BEN WATTENBERG: Middletown is social science at a micro-level. The U.S. Census is macro, very macro. It is taken every 10 years and counts all Americans. This machine, the first mechanical calculator, was invented for use in the Census of 1890. Its inventor, Herman Holoritt, a Census employee, later helped create a little startup, IBM. Today the modern descendants of this device are pumping detailed data into the bloodstream of American life. It is hard to imagine how the nation could manage itself without such measurements.
KEN PREWITT (Director, Census Bureau): I think the rudiments of democratic accountability, not just democratic governance, but democratic accountability, depend upon a healthy, vibrant, high-quality national statistical system. How in the world can you govern a complicated industrial economy without decent information by those people who have to write the laws and administer the laws and the programs?
BEN WATTENBERG: Ken Prewitt has spent much of his career gathering and examining data. His biggest task as a social scientist came as director of Census 2000, the keystone document in America's statistical system. What does the Census tell us about America at the dawn of the 21st century? Here's a grab bag.
Fewer men are working past age 65, helping trigger a boom in retirement housing and travel. Life expectancy for both men and women at age 60 has gone up substantially.
DANIEL YANKELOVICH (Pollster): One of the most extraordinary changes in demography and people living longer that has been overlooked is not only are people living longer physically, but they're retaining their vitality for a longer period of time. Today's 79-year-old person is the equivalent of a 65-year-old person earlier in the century.
BEN WATTENBERG: Income inequality has been a controversial issue at the end of the century. On its face, it appears that the wealthiest 5 percent of families not only earned more money than the bottom 40 percent, but that recently their share of income rose dramatically before leveling off. But there is more to the story. There has been a stunning rise in the average income of middle-class Americans over the century. Moreover, the fruits of modernization have been shared across the board. Most Americans, regardless of income, get the same pharmaceuticals, watch the same movies and videos, have the same mode of personal transportation, and share the same Internet.
CHRISTOPHER DEMUTH: By any measures, whether we're looking at money income or broader measures of good health, the wealth that people have accumulated, how much money they spend, how they spend their time, there has been a spectacular equalization of real-life circumstances over the past century.
One of the reasons that redistribution has receded from our politics is that the material necessities of life, and even things that were, until fairly recently, considered the material luxuries of life, have become so ubiquitous.
BEN WATTENBERG: The South grew most economically. In 1900, southerners earned about half the national average. By century end, correcting for cost of living, the South caught up to the rest of the country. One hero: Air conditioning, now universal in the South. And, of course, America grew from 76 million people in 1900 to 275 million in 2000; grown and become more diverse, due mostly to the Immigration Act of 1965.
ALAN KRAUT: In 1965, there was a sea change in American immigration law. The country abandoned the national origins quota system and adopted a system which stressed family reunification, the admission of immigrants who offered something to the United States professionally or in terms of badly-needed skills. We no longer wanted to restrict immigration from particular countries the way we had in the earlier period.
KEN PREWITT: Now it's not Europe. Now it is the rest of the world. It is Southeast Asia, the Far East. It is a new diaspora from Africa. It's Somalia, the Eritreans, the Ethiopians, Senegalese. It is, of course, a huge movement from Latin America.
BEN WATTENBERG: Between 1900 and 1930, 98 percent of all immigrants came from Europe. Between 1965 and 1995, it was 15 percent. The effects of this change are apparent. Asian-Americans have increased from .2 percent of the population in 1950 to 4 percent in 2000. The Hispanic population went up from 3 percent to 11 percent. The black proportion of the population grew moderately, from 10 percent to 13 percent.
Back in 1950, 88 percent of Americans were classified as non-Hispanic whites. The 2000 Census shows that figure at about 70 percent. And the Census Bureau projects that this so-called Anglo population will make up 53 percent by 2050. In 1982, pollsters asked whether specific immigrant groups have been good or bad for America. Most respondents thought English immigrants had been a good influence. But look at this: Italians, Jews and Poles, once scorned, also had very high approval ratings. And what do Americans think of more recent immigrants? The same 1982 poll showed dramatically less approval. Yet by 1997, positive images of Haitian, Vietnamese, Korean and Mexican immigrants had climbed substantially.
RITA SIMON (American University): The American public tends to look at immigration with rose-colored glasses turned backwards. By that I mean that they tend to see immigrants who arrived earlier, whenever earlier happened to be, as those who make positive contributions to this country, as those who have helped build this country, settled the land and so forth. And immigrants who are coming now -- and the now could have been 50 years ago; it could be today -- as immigrants who are not likely to make positive contributions and whose admittance should be severely limited.
BEN WATTENBERG: So is the old melting pot still simmering? It is demographically. Among Asian-Americans, 64 percent marry outside their ethnic group. Among Hispanic-Americans, 37 percent marry outside their ethnic group. The African-American rate is much lower but rising from 3 percent in 1980 to 8.8 percent in 1998, and higher for younger persons. If these rates of intermarriage continue to grow, racial and ethnic classifications will likely have less meaning in the future.
KEN PREWITT: It's called sometimes the Tiger Woods phenomenon. Tiger Woods, after all, would presumably check four boxes -- Asian, Native American Indian, white and black, because he sees himself coming from all four of those racial traditions, and he has said so. So he would be four categories.
BEN WATTENBERG: Intermarriage and assimilation can often be painful and resisted. But remember what Israel Zangwell wrote: "America is God's crucible, the great melting pot. God is making the American." It seems to be happening.
KEN PREWITT: So we now are creating a country, the first country in world history, which literally has to represent all of the world, which is to say, it's not just Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. It's now Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim, along with Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. It's not just four or five languages. It's 150 languages. We have the challenge and the opportunity to create the first country in world history which literally is a reflection of the entire world. If we do that well, it will be an enormous accomplishment.
BEN WATTENBERG: America is indeed becoming the first universal nation. I think it will work out well. And measurably, liberty has been extended in a most exceptional land. Deep in their bones, despite the media drumbeat of crisis and scandal, Americans know this to be true. In 1999, pollsters were in the field asking this question: Is America a unique country that stands for something special in the world? By 84 percent to 13 percent, Americans said yes. Another poll asked, "Why was America successful during the 20th century?" The top three responses: Our Constitution, free elections and the free enterprise system.
What next? Living in liberty doesn't mean there are no problems, only that we have imperfect ways of dealing with problems. With the social science tools developed in the century just past, we can better measure what's happening and why it's happening. This bolsters the American tradition of liberty, allowing us to better respond and adapt to change imperfectly. It's not everything, but if you look around the world, it's not nothing either. It's about as good as it gets. I encourage you to take a look at the numbers for yourself on the Web and in reference books. Shape them, sculpt them, massage them as you will. Let me know what you find out.
For "The First Measured Century" and for Think Tank, I'm Ben Wattenberg.