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Book tells America's history by the numbers

Staff Report

Despite popular misconceptions, American parents today spend more time with their children than they did years ago, and Americans are not more mobile or moving far from home more often than they used to. These are two of the results documented in a new book, The First Measured Century: An Illustrated Guide to Trends in America, 1900-2000.

During the 20th century, Americans became the most energetic measurers of social life that ever lived, say authors Theodore Caplow, Commonwealth Professor of Sociology at U.Va., Louis Hicks of St. Mary's College in Maryland, and Ben J. Wattenberg, syndicated columnist, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and host of a weekly PBS series.

Americans measured the size of their population and their territory, and pioneered the measurement of facets of American life that had never been systematically counted before, including crime, sex, food, fun, religion and work. This tradition of counting and measuring spread to virtually every nook and cranny of national life, they say. Numbers, such as the Consumer Price Index, the Gross National Product, the unemployment rate and the poverty rate, among others, shaped public discourse and defined 20th-century America, according to the authors.

Their book, the first of its kind (as there was never a measured century before this one), examines 15 areas of American life: population, work, education, family, living arrangements, religion, leisure, health, money, politics, government, crime, transportation, business and communications. It tells what happened to ordinary citizens and reveals the following trends.

• Americans are healthier, are more highly educated, and read more.

• More Americans claim membership in a religious organization (70 percent in 1998 compared to 41 percent in 1906). However weekly attendance at religious services remained level: 43 percent of adults in 1939 and 40 percent in 1998.

• Americans are now more approving of premarital sex and less approving of extramarital sex.

• America's population nearly quadrupled during the century and its highways became safer to travel.

The First Measured Century was published by AEI Press in December in conjunction with a three-hour PBS television special of the same name, hosted by Wattenberg and aired nationally Dec. 20. Data for the illustrated volume and TV project were drawn extensively from the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Park Service and other governmental sources, Gallop polls, private sector sources, and the findings of a new "Middletown IV" survey, commissioned for the project.

Conducted in 1999, the survey built on Robert and Helen Lynd's landmark sociological study of a typical American community in the 1920s. The Lynd study was the first to employ modern survey methods to examine an entire city. In 1978, Caplow led a team of social scientists that replicated and extended the Lynd's work. In 1999, The First Measured Century project commissioned a partial replication of the "Middletown" study to gather long-term data on certain topics not covered by official statistics. The research team, also directed by Caplow, used the same survey instruments in the same place with the same wording as the Lynd's used 75 years earlier. These surveys provide the longest series of public opinion in the world, according to Caplow. A feature of The First Measured Century is the inclusion of the first published results from the new "Middletown IV" study.

When asked if one major theme stood out in the book, the authors said, "The story of America in the 20th century includes gigantic successes and remarkable failures. Central to that success has been a measurable expansion of economic, social and cultural liberty. The failures include the persistence of poverty in the midst of abundance; traffic gridlock; a malfunctioning criminal justice system; and conspicuous deficiencies in education, health care and public services. We did well in the old century. We can do better in the new."


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