Vital Statistics

views updated



general explanation

Population changes reflect the natural facts of life: births and deaths. Births, in turn, have long been largely governed by the mechanisms of family formation. Vital statistics are compilations of data on marriage, divorce, birth, and death. Births and deaths directly determine changes in the size of a population; marriages and divorces create and dissolve, respectively, the conditions under which most births occur. The surplus of births over deaths is called natural increase; under unfavorable demographic conditions, deaths may exceed births, in which case a natural decrease occurs.

Vital events constitute one of the components of population dynamics; the others are migration and, for a group like the Jews, adhesion and withdrawal. In a "closed" population, unaffected by migrations and by adhesions or withdrawals, the numerical evolution depends entirely on the balance of births and deaths. The natural increase (or decrease) is indeed of fundamental importance for the future of any population, but the migratory changes may counteract the vital balance for some time. For example, despite strong natural increase, there was probably no growth in the total number of Jews in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century because of extensive emigration, mostly to America. On the other hand, among Jewish populations in Central and Western Europe throughout the 20th century prevailing natural decrease was outweighed or at least compensated by a positive migratory balance.

The figures of vital events in any population are strongly affected by its age composition. In a population containing a very large proportion of young adults, as may be the case where there has been large immigration, birth figures may be high in spite of a modest level of fertility (for definition of this term, see measurement, below); on the other hand, under conditions of advanced aging frequently found at present in Jewish populations, actual death figures may be high even though the specific mortality in each age group is comparatively low. All these factors need to be considered in evaluating the causes and consequences of population trends. The age composition of a population at any specific time is itself the result of the demographic dynamics of preceding decades: unless migratory influences or adhesions/withdrawals were particularly conspicuous, it largely depends on past fertility. A prolonged decrease in births leads to the aging of a population. In the early phases of aging the proportion of children decreases while that of all adults, including the adults of procreative age, increases. This in turn tends to sustain the crude birth rate while deaths of children will be relatively fewer per 1,000 of the population (which may reduce the crude death rate especially if child mortality is still conspicuous). In later phases of aging, the proportion of elderly and old persons in the population grows, and consequently, the crude birth rate is depressed and the crude death rate rises. Age composition thus intervenes as both the consequence and the cause of the frequency of vital events in a population.


Absolute figures of births, deaths, etc., are important for calculating up-to-date estimates of population size and for planning such social services as schools, hospitals, etc. For demographic analysis, it is necessary to consider the frequency of vital events in relation to the population in which they occur. The resulting figures are called demographic rates. "Crude" rates usually indicate the frequency of vital events per 1,000 of mean population in a specified year. The commonly mentioned "birth rate" and "death rate" are of this nature. Crude rates make no allowance for age and sex composition of a population. Consequently, if this composition is markedly distorted, crude rates are liable to lead to misconceptions about the intrinsic demographic situation. Unfortunately, crude rates are often the best available information on vital events among Jewish populations, especially prior to the last few decades.

To overcome the shortcomings inherent in crude rates, age-sex specific rates are calculated to show correctly the frequency of vital events in any specified age-sex group of the population during a certain period. These rates can be synthesized by the use of appropriate techniques. Demographic indicators thus obtained – e.g., "fertility rates" for the measurement of reproduction and "mean life expectancy at birth" for the measurement of mortality – are unaffected by peculiarities in the age-sex composition of any population. They depend, however, on the availability of data broken down by small age groups and by sex, with regard to both the total population and the persons involved in the given vital events (such as the women giving birth, the deceased, etc.). Under present conditions of documentation on Jewish vital statistics, such data are only very partially available. In addition, if the absolute numbers for vital events are broken down by age and sex, very small figures, which are liable to irregularities, result in all but the larger Jewish populations. It is also possible to calculate "standardized rates," assuming, for the sake of comparison, the same age distribution for several demographic groups, e.g., the Jews and the general population of the respective country. The concept of "fertility" relates the births not to the entire population of both sexes and all ages but to the women of reproductive age. It means basically, the number of children born, on the average, to women throughout their reproductive period.


Vital statistics on Jews in Diaspora countries come from either official or Jewish sources. Official statistics of this kind now exist only for a minority of the Jews in Diaspora countries. Data on vital events either come from current statistics reflecting the administrative registration of births, deaths, etc., or are obtained from censuses and surveys. In the latter instances, some of the relevant information may be derived from retrospective questions on age at marriage of the persons ever married, on the number of children born to the enumerated women, etc. Under present conditions, current vital statistics from Jewish sources tend to reflect the frequency of religious functions, such as weddings, divorces, circumcisions, and burials, rather than give a full demographic picture, because some Jews recur to civil ceremonies alone.

demographic transitions

The widely prevalent descriptive model of the demographic transition divides the modern evolution of the populations of the technologically advanced countries into four stages. In the first stage, which represents the conditions of the past, both fertility and mortality were very high, so that only limited natural increase could materialize. In stage two, which fell mainly into the 19th and early 20th centuries, mortality declined, while fertility continued to be high; considerable natural increase resulted, and the respective populations grew rapidly. In stage three fertility also declined due to the diffusion of birth control; population growth consequently diminished, with a low being reached in the 1930s. The fourth stage – in the context of a generally moderate or low mortality level – resulted in repeated upward and downward fertility fluctuations (such as a "baby boom" in some Western countries and an ensuing "baby bust") reflecting response to changing circumstances. Eventually fertility subsided again, yet maintained itself at somewhat different levels in different countries. In Europe, stages two and three did not begin at the same time in the various countries but spread, on the whole, from west to east. Even within the same country, the timing of the changes differed according to social group and geographical location: the educated, well-todo, and urban elements were involved earlier than the other groups. By 1970 nearly all the populations in the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America had entered upon stage two which expresses itself by a "population explosion," and some had already entered upon stage three. By 2000 all countries were moving through one or another stage of demographic transition. Significantly, a fifth stage had emerged mostly among European societies, showing a negative balance between birth and death rates and reflecting a progressive aging of age composition.

It is noteworthy that the Jews of Europe preceded the general population of the respective countries in effecting the transition from stage one to two, lowering mortality, from stage two to three, adoption of family planning, from stage three to four, fertility response to changing environment, and from stage four to stage five, population erosion due to a negative balance of births and deaths. In this, as well as in the subsequent developments, the Jews intensively displayed the characteristics of the social and ecological strata in which they were largely concentrated – the educated and urbanized, with a tendency to white-collar occupations. Besides these compositional effects, additional and more specifically Jewish determinants in the cultural and socio-psychological realm played an important role in the demographic evolution of the Jews.


The limited data available from some European cities in the 18th century give the impression that Jewish mortality was already declining. There is ample documentation to show the systematic decline of Jewish mortality all over Europe throughout the 19th century, though there was some time lag between this development among the Jews in the countries of Central and Western Europe, on the one hand, and of Eastern Europe, on the other. In any country of Europe and at any time during the 19th century, the crude death rate of the Jews was almost always lower than that of the entire population of the respective country (see Table 1). This was largely

BirthsDeathsNatural Increase
Country or CityPeriodJewsGeneral PopulationJewsGeneral PopulationJewsGeneral Population
1 Rates per 1,000 of population. Some of the figures are only approximate or based
2 Jews and non-Jews, respectively.
3 Corrected version of official figures for Jews.
4 1926–1928 for general population.
5 1945 for non-Jews.
6 Estimates.
Main Sources: Compilations contained in the publications listed in the Bibliography; Statistical Abstract of Israel (various issues). The vital statistics are official ones, except for those on the Jews of Italy which are based on registration by the Jewish communities.
Germany (F.G.R.)1960–19626182111−157
Russian Poland21906293916231316
St. Petersburg (Leningrad)1910–19131828112276
Israel–Jews of European origin619651587
Jews of Asian–African Origin6196530525

due to the reasons adduced above for the peculiar position of the Jews in the framework of modern demographic transitions: their concentration in towns and particularly in large cities, which by the 19th century in Europe had better hygienic conditions and health services than rural areas; their higher educational level; and their other socioeconomic characteristics. Additional cultural factors, that were specific to the reduction of mortality, may have included the hygienic influence of the observance of some traditional Jewish precepts in the selection and preparation of food, washing of hands, and ablutions, etc.; the rarity of venereal diseases and alcoholism among Jews; the comparative frequency of physicians among them; and perhaps also greater attention to health and especially to the health of children, the reduction of whose previously high mortality was a major feature in the overall improvement of the mortality situation. The differentials in the death rate of Jews and non-Jews were smaller for towns than for entire countries where the non-Jewish rural population is included in the comparisons.

The differentials between Jews and non-Jews were sometimes particularly conspicuous with regard to infant mortality (see Table 2).

Comparing cause-of-death distributions and morbidity patterns of Jews and non-Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries, one finds lower proportions of infectious diseases and diseases of the digestive system among the Jews. An often observed difference was the lower frequency of tuberculosis among Jews.

During the Holocaust, Jewish mortality in Europe was on an altogether catastrophic scale: the majority of Jews there perished. The age groups most affected were the old and the very young. The deficiency of persons whose childhood coincided with the Holocaust period continues to make itself felt in the age distribution of European Jews. It was aggravated by a great reduction in Jewish births before, and even more so during the persecutions.

While the Jews in Europe and in technologically advanced countries of other continents preceded their neighbors in the reduction of mortality, the majority of populations closed the gap in the course of time and the respective differentials narrowed substantially. This had already happened in some cities and countries even before the Holocaust. Because of the increasing aging of many Jewish populations, these developments cannot be studied properly from crude rates, and more refined methods must be resorted to. In particular, it has been possible to calculate the mean life expectancy at birth which is based on age-specific rates and not affected by the actual age composition for several Jewish populations. In recent decades, the life expectancy of Jews in advanced countries has been growing by about one year of life every five calendar years, and around the year 2000 it reached 80 years for women and 75 years for men. Although only little different from that of the general population in the corresponding countries or cities, a tendency for infant mortality to be lower among Jews persisted. On the other hand, crude mortality rates of Jews considerably exceed those

Country or CityPeriodJewsGeneral Population
1 Deceased under 1 year per 1,000 live births. Some of the figures are only approximate or based on different definitions.
2 Jews and non-Jews, respectively.
3 The three principal Jewish communities in Italy.
Main Sources: Compilations contained in the publications listed in the Bibliography; Statistical Abstract of Israel (various issues). The vital statistics are official ones, except for those on the Jews of Italy which are based on registration by the Jewish communities.
European Russia1900–1904119254
St. Petersburg (Leningrad)1900–1904109260
Montreal 193143113
Israel (Palestine)1923–1925121

of the respective general populations, mainly due to the overaged composition of the respective Jewish groups.

The Israel population census of 1961 was instrumental in furnishing information on the mortality conditions of the Jews in Asian and African countries. The census contained a question addressed to women who were ever married: "How many of their children born abroad before immigration to Israel died below the age of 5?" The available data provide relevant information for the participants in the mass migration of 1948–54 (see Table 3). Child mortality among the Jews was still very high in Yemen but reached various stages of decrease in other countries of major Jewish residence in Asia and Africa. Younger women had been affected by lower child mortality than older women, whose experience stretched back into earlier decades.

Women's Country of BirthWomen's Age at Immigration
Asia and Africa – Total2127
There of: Yemen, Aden4746
Tunisia, Algeria2737
Morocco, Tangier2232

In Palestine, Jews achieved a remarkable reduction of mortality during the Mandatory period (1918–48), largely due to the strong immigration of European elements and the establishment of active and highly qualified health services. In the latter part of the 1940s, the Jewish population in Palestine was already counted among the very advanced in the world insofar as lowering of mortality was concerned. Some temporary setback, especially in infant mortality, was caused by the mass immigration of Jews from less developed countries in Asia and Africa in the early years of the State of Israel, but it was overcome with astonishing speed. The whole Jewish population had a mean life expectancy in excess of 70 years for females since 1951, and for males since 1959.

Marriage and Divorce

Among the European Jews in the past, as far as is ascertainable from available information, marriage was widespread. Few people did not marry at all unless prevented by official restrictions. Persons of both sexes contracted their (first) marriage at a rather early age. Though high mortality led to frequent instances of widowhood, this was often followed by remarriage, especially of men. In this case, the average age difference between spouses was greater than in the first marriage. Women used to spend a very large proportion of their reproductive years in married life, and this favored high fertility. In addition, there was hardly any out-marriage. Among the Jews in Europe and later among Jews of European origin who settled in America and in other areas of immigration changes developed in this traditional marriage pattern in the course of time. These changes were connected, among other things, with the spread of secularization and the modern complexion of Jewish life. There emerged some tendency for a larger proportion of Jews to remain unmarried which was already particularly marked in Central and Western Europe between the world wars and has again become conspicuous since the 1970s. There was also a systematic rise in age at first marriage, very clearly shown by retrospective census data on the large body of European Jews, mainly from Eastern Europe, who settled in Israel (see Table 4). Between the world wars, Jews

Period of MarriageMenWomen
1 At first marriage.
Up to 1961 – total28.024.0
Up to 191524.521.8

in Central and Eastern Europe already had a higher marriage age than the general population of the respective countries. In the United States, Jews participated in a general reduction of the marriage age, but according to an official sample survey of 1957, their median age at first marriage was somewhat higher than among the rest of the population. It is obvious that these trends among Jews of European origin, namely the increase in the proportion never married and in marriage age, were bound to have a depressing influence on fertility levels.

A major trend in the modern marriage pattern of Diaspora Jews is the increase in out-marriage. Because of the inconsistency in the use of words like intermarriage and mixed marriage the term out-marriage will be used here for all unions in which only one partner is, or was, a Jew. The statistical information available on this topic has been scanty and unsatisfactory because of both the paucity of sources and difficulties in measurement. In relation to measurement, it should be noted that most available data reflect the religious diversity of marriage partners at a specified time while ignoring previous diversity that was overcome by change of religion on the part of one of them. Therefore, the data tend to give an underestimate of the real extent of out-marriage among Jews. There are two main types of sources: statistics of current weddings and statistics of couples in the population as ascertained by censuses or surveys. Because of the rising trend of out-marriages, their proportion is higher in the data derived from the former source.

An increase in out-marriage among Jews was observable in European countries of strong Jewish assimilation and in immigration countries overseas as early as the 19th century. Out-marriage reached considerable proportions in some larger Jewish populations of Europe between the world wars. Since World War ii, a rise in the proportion of out-marriages has been noticeable among the Jews in Europe, America, South Africa, and Australia. There are, however, great differences in the actual extent of out-marriage. While it spells the disintegration of some smaller Jewish groups in Europe where most marrying Jews contract out-marriages, it used to be much more limited in America until the early 1960s (see Table 5).

Country or CityPeriodPer 100 Jewish
Grooms/Husbands Current WeddingsBrides/Wives
1 European territories only.
Main Sources: Compilations contained in the publications listed in the Bibliography. The data are official ones, except for those on "all existing couples" in the Nether lands and Italy which were obtained through Jewish-sponsored population surveys.
All Existing Couples

Since then it has been on the increase there also, as shown particularly by current country-wide data from Canada, by intergenerational comparisons made from data of local Jewish community surveys in the United States, and especially by the National Jewish Population Surveys of 1970, 1990, and 2001. The proportion of recorded out-marriages was generally higher among Jewish men than Jewish women, but over time the gap has narrowed.

The basic causes of out-marriage are the growing interaction of Diaspora Jews with surrounding society, the weakening of religious links and of ethnic identity, and assimilation. There are also contributory demographic factors: the limited size of many Jewish populations, especially after the Holocaust; the increased geographical dispersion of the Jews; and distortions in the age-sex composition of Jewish populations which themselves are partly connected with their smallness as well as with the aftereffects of the Holocaust and other factors. It is noteworthy that even before the middle of the 19th century in America and in the early part of this century in Australia, a marked tendency toward out-marriage prevailed in the then small Jewish populations but its frequency greatly diminished after the arrival of large waves of new Jewish immigrants. Similarly, it is found that at present out-marriage among the Jews of a given country is more frequent in localities or regions with fewer Jews.

Out-marriage is of great importance to the demography of the Jews. It often spells demographic losses through the drop-out of out-marrying Jewish spouses or of the children of such marriages. The direct statistical information available on the balance of demographic losses and gains occasioned by out-marriage generally indicates a loss to the Jewish side in Western and Eastern Europe and in the United States. The affiliation balance may turn in favor of the Jewish community in the case of some Latin American countries such as Mexico or Venezuela where the incidence of out-marriage is quite low.

Conversions to Judaism prompted by marriage pose problems of identity in the present and following generations. Some data on ex-Jews and persons of mixed (Jewish and non-Jewish) origin are available from Germany. In relation to 100 infants born to all Jewish couples including the out-married, those with only one parent whose religion was recorded as Jewish were 13 percent in Prussia during 1925–28 and 51 percent in West Germany during 1951–64 (both figures do not include illegitimate births by Jewish women). According to the Nazi census of 1939, 307,600 persons of Jewish religion were enumerated in Germany, Austria, and the Sudeten region, but there were a total of 330,600 "Jews according to race" and another 112,600 "mixed" persons with one or two Jewish grandparents of whom only 7,200 were Jews by religion. From the accession of the Nazis to power in Germany until that census (1933–39), the number of Jews by religion had dropped to less than one-half in the enumerated areas, mainly through emigration. It may be assumed that the relative extent of emigration was smaller for the other categories of persons with one or two Jewish grandparents. It might be roughly conjectured that their number corresponded to about one-quarter of the Jews by religion at the beginning of the 1930s.

Glimpses of the traditional marriage patterns of the Jews in Asia and Africa are found in Israel statistics, particularly in the data of the 1961 population census (see Table 6). First marriages had been practically universal and occurred at an early age, especially among the girls, and remarriage was frequent, primarily because of the rather high mortality. Among the

Country Of BirthAge at Marriage1Percent Ever Married at age 45–49 3Percent Married More than Once by Age 65+ 3
Mean AgePercent Married Young2
1Age at first marriage of persons who married before migration to Israel.
2Married up to age 19 for men, and up to age 17 for women.
3Per 100 persons born in Asia-Africa and living in Israel in 1961.
Asia and Africa – total24.2229724
Thereof: Yemen, Aden20.8449943
Asia and Africa – total19.4399810
Thereof: Yemen, Aden17.0559720

Asian-African Jews enumerated in Israel in 1961, the proportion of individuals who had married at an early age was particularly high among those married in Yemen. Yet, the Israel data also show some rise in the age of Asian and African Jews at first marriage in the period prior to the mass migration to Israel and a higher marriage age among the better educated. Out-marriages were apparently rare among the Jews in Asia and Africa. In Mandatory Palestine and Israel, virtually all Jews have been in the habit of marrying, including those of European origin. The marriage age of the Jews from Asia and Africa went up, especially among women; the marriage age of the Jews from Europe, on the other hand, somewhat dropped and a tendency clearly emerged toward standardization of the respective patterns of all Jews in Israel. Out-marriage was rare in Israel until the arrival of a substantial number of non-Jewish immigrants in the framework of the major exodus from the former Soviet Union after 1989.

Data on Jewish divorces can be obtained from statistics reflecting current registration of such events or from information supplied by censuses and surveys on the composition of a Jewish population according to marital status. Sources of the latter kind usually show a higher proportion of divorced persons among women than among men, because of the greater tendency of men to remarry. In comparing the frequency of divorce among Jews and the general population of a country in the Diaspora, the religious orientation of the latter and prevailing legal arrangements must be taken into account. The Roman Catholic Church does not permit divorce, whereas it is not infrequent in Muslim societies. In some countries a status of separation is recognized. For an assessment of the relative frequency of divorce among the Diaspora Jews of European origin, their urbanization and socioeconomic stratification must be taken into consideration. The data available point to an increase in divorce in the Jewish populations of Europe and America during the 20th century but there were considerable differences between various countries in the actual proportion of divorced Jews. There also were marked differences between countries in the relative frequency of divorce among the Jews and among the general population, respectively. In Canada, an increase in the proportion of divorced Jews occurred from 1931 to 1961, and the Jews there had somewhat higher proportions of divorces than the general population. In the United States, considerable differences emerged in the extent of divorce among Jews according to the data available from local studies. The overall prevalence of divorce was lower among Jews than among the total U.S. population, but over time Jews tended to close that gap. Divorce was not rare among the Jews in Asia and Africa.


Data on birth and on fertility can be derived either from current statistics, based on registration of the births that take place, or from censuses and surveys. In the latter case, retrospective questions may be asked about the children born to each woman. Failing such a specific inquiry, the sex-age distribution obtained from a census or population survey permits calculation of the "fertility ratio" also called "child-woman ratio" which is the ratio of the number of young children alive to the number of women of reproductive age. For improved measurement, child mortality up to the date of enumeration is accounted for. The average number of children living in each family is a rough indication obtainable from censuses. The ratio between the number of 0–4-year-old children and that of 5–9-year-old children shows recent changes in the frequency of births.

In Europe, the birth rate of the Jews was, on the whole, high in the past. As early as the first half of the 19th century, however, birth rates found among the Jews were somewhat lower than those among the general population in some countries and cities of Central Europe. In large parts of Eastern Europe, the birth rate of the Jews continued to be very high and similar to that of the respective general populations until near the end of the 19th century.

The Jews preceded the general population of their countries of residence in the reduction of natality and in the adoption of family planning through birth control methods. The reasons for this differential may be the above-mentioned greater concentration of Jews in those social strata which, in general, reduced births more rapidly such as the urban, were better educated, engaged in white-collar occupations; the fact that mortality of the Jews went down more rapidly causing Jewish families to experience the economic pressure exercised by the survival of more children at an earlier date; possibly also the greater concern of Jews for the proper upbringing of their children, as well as the eagerness of Jews for upward social mobility, and other related factors.

The decrease in Jewish births was a gradual process. In some countries, however, it proceeded rather quickly. In Europe, this development spread, on the whole, from west to east. As early as the eve of World War i, there were cities in Europe where the Jewish birth rate had dropped so low that it was barely able to balance the current deaths. This situation intensified in the 1920s and became still more acute and widespread during the general slump in births in the 1930s when the economic and political crisis was aggravated for the Jews in Europe by ever more menacing manifestations of antisemitism. In North America as well, the high fertility of the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe quickly gave way to drastic birth limitation. Retrospective fertility data, subsequently obtained in the United States and Canada, show that Jewish women who had spent their most fertile years during the 1930s and early 1940s had borne, on the average, less than two children – not enough for demographic replacement. Then the Shoah overtook European Jewry; births became rare and most young children perished.

After World War ii, Jews in Western Europe, America, and Australia participated in the "baby boom" characteristic of those years. The survivors in Europe had the special reason of wishing to reconstitute their families. However, this upsurge of natality among the Jews was rather short-lived. In the United States by the late 1950s and in Western Europe by the early 1960s it was followed by another decline in births. In Eastern Europe, barely any postwar birth-rate recovery emerged. The ensuing data from all over the world show that natality and fertility were lower among Jews than among the general population of their respective countries of residence. This can be seen from decreasing absolute figures and crude birth rates, as well as from the age breakdown of Jewish children (the ratio of 0–4-year-olds to 5–9-year-olds), according to censuses and surveys. It is true that the age structure of the Jewish adults was unfavorable to current births, because the prospective mothers belonged to the comparatively small cohorts born during the great slump in births of the 1930s. But when the age composition turned to be more favorable to Jewish natality for a while as the comparatively large cohorts born during the "baby boom" around 1950 were reaching procreative age, the expected rise in the Jewish birth rate did only partially materialize. Fertility indicators which are less affected by the actual age composition, also pointed to a decline in Jewish fertility. Indeed, birth rates and fertility levels also registered declines in the general population of many technologically advanced countries during the 1950s or 1960s, and even more significantly during the 1970s. Low fertility levels, anticipated by Jewish populations, lead nearer to, or aggravate, insufficient demographic replacement all across developed countries.

There are variations in the actual levels of fertility and natality of Jews throughout their global geographical dispersion. Yet these levels are universally rather low when assessed as a source for the growth, or even for the mere maintenance, of Jewish population size. The present low fertility of the Jews in most Diaspora countries is a major cause of concern for the demographic future of large sections of the Jewish people.

Among Jews of European origin in Mandatory Palestine and Israel, there was a rapid decline in fertility in the 1920s and 1930s to a low at about 1940. Yet the crude birth rate remained substantial because of the comparatively young age composition of this immigrant population. There, too, a "baby boom" was followed by a renewed drop in fertility; however, fertility remained above replacement level. It is noteworthy that the European Jews who immigrated after the establishment of the State of Israel increased their fertility from its level abroad, which was quite insufficient for demographic replacement, to a level which, though moderate, was sufficient for this end.

The Jews of Asia and Africa used to have high fertility in their countries of residence. Retrospective data from Israel on fertility of immigrants abroad prior to immigration show that women gave birth to six or seven children on the average. Though differentiation of fertility according to educational level of women had already set in, the great majority of women had not attended school or had reached only low educational attainment and were very prolific. Jews in Egypt and Turkey had markedly lower fertility, just as they differed in socioeconomic status from other Asian-African Jews. The overwhelming majority of the Jews from Asia and Africa moved to Israel or to France and other countries of Europe and America. Israel data show a rapid fertility decline throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s under the influence of the new surroundings, and similar developments took place in other countries where the socioeconomic status of Jewish migrants from Asia and Africa was generally higher than that of their peers who had moved to Israel.

Illegitimate births, insofar as statistical data are available, were on the whole less frequent among Jews than among the respective general populations. However, percentages of such births recorded from Central Europe in the period between the world wars and again in recent decades were not negligible. An altogether different matter was the lack of an officially recognized status for many religious Jewish marriages in some parts of Eastern Europe, which led to the offspring of such unions being registered by the authorities as "illegitimate."

Natural Increase

In the past, mortality, and especially child mortality, was so high as to almost offset high fertility; as a consequence, natural increase was small and population growth was slow. On the whole, this may also be presumed to have been the situation of the Jews before the modern demographic evolution. As mortality declined, while fertility continued to be high or at least moderately high, considerable natural increase was generated. This was the demographic situation of most of European Jewry during a great part of the 19th century. East European Jewry, which adopted widespread birth control comparatively late, displayed natural increase on such a substantial scale that its numbers rose from about five and a half million to seven million during 1880–1914, despite the emigration of more than 2,500,000 persons overseas or to Western Europe. As the Jews had preceded the general population of their countries of residence in the reduction of mortality, they enjoyed, for a considerable time, relatively higher natural increase.

When the subsequent fertility decline among Jews became more acute, their natural increase dwindled and became smaller than that of the corresponding general populations. Extreme instances were Jewish populations in Central Europe that already had a yearly surplus of deaths over births from some time in the 1920s before the accession of the Nazis to power. In the United States and Canada in the 1930s, Jewish fertility was insufficient for demographic replacement in the long run.

The Shoah liquidated not only about one-third of the Jewish people, but also had aftereffects that were highly detrimental to the further demographic development of the survivors. Distortions in the age-sex distribution and the reduced size of the Jewish communities extant in Europe or scattered through migration to other regions of the Diaspora enhanced the chances of out-marriages with their consequent demographic losses to the Jewish people.

After the short-lived Jewish "baby-boom" following World War ii, the growth prospects of Jewish Diaspora populations became far from encouraging. In Central and Western Europe all the evidence shows an outright deficit in the balance of births and deaths. For Eastern Europe including the Soviet Union, direct evidence and statistics available on the age composition of immigrants to Israel show that fertility was long below replacement level. As regards the Jews in the United States and Canada, a decline in births since the late 1950s and early 1960s is clearly documented. It is evident that the rate of natural increase cannot be very considerable. This is also the conclusion from data available for South Africa and Australia.

The small natural increase, or even decrease, of Diaspora Jews is the more disquieting from the viewpoint of the demographic future of the Jewish people. Since World War ii, and more especially since the 1970s when an unmistakable tendency to increasing out-marriages and some withdrawals emerged, a small natural increase in a Jewish population became insufficient to maintain Jewish population size irrespective of migratory influences. Aggravating circumstances were low fertility; advanced aging; out-marriages and withdrawals. Only by viewing all of these negative factors together, is a realistic picture obtained of the demographic situation and perspectives of most Jewish Diaspora communities in Europe, North America, and other overseas countries.

Until mass emigration following Israel's independence in 1948, the Jews in Asia and Africa were in a stage of rapid and accelerating demographic expansion. Exceptions to this generalization were presented by the Yemenites, whose mortality was still too high to leave much room for natural increase, and on the other hand, the Jews in Turkey and Egypt, whose fertility had already been reduced considerably. The first effect of migration to Israel and to France was a reduction in mortality, which boosted natural increase for a while; however, the fertility decline, which soon set in, operated in the opposite direction. While the transfer of many Jews from Asia and Africa to Israel, France, etc., raised the average fertility and natural increase among the Jewish population in the receiving countries, it tended to lower the fertility and natural increase of the Jewish people as a whole.

Into the 21st Century

Over the last quarter of the 20th century, distinct erosion in conventional marriage patterns among Jews reflected similar general trends among developed Western societies. Propensities to marry significantly diminished. An increase in unmarried couples living together overwhelmingly composed by one Jewish and one non-Jewish partner in the Diaspora, did not compensate for fewer and later marriages. Divorce rates increased and tended to approach the higher rates of non-Jews. In Israel such trends were more conservative, but they could be observed too, as demonstrated by the presence of over one million non-married individuals among the adult Jewish population around 2005.

Among Jews who married since the 1990s, in the United States 50 percent or more had a non-Jewish partner, between 35 and 45 percent did in France and the U.K., and higher percentages approaching 70 and 80 percent did in the fsu and other Eastern European countries. The differential frequency of out-marriages of Jewish men and women tended to disappear, equalling the higher levels previously recorded for men. The majority of children of out-marriages were not identified as Jews. During the 1990s, similar relatively low proportions of children of out-marriages (about 20 percent) were identified by the respective parents as Jewish in Russia (with rather underdeveloped Jewish community resources), as in the United States (with highly developed Jewish resources). In 2001, that percent had risen to about one-third in the U.S. As a compound consequence, the configuration of Jewish households was characterized by an increasing share different from the conventional nuclear family inclusive of two Jewish parents living with their Jewish children. In the Diaspora this comprised an ever smaller minority of all Jewish households.

In a general context of low and declining death rates, life expectancy at birth surpassed 80 years for women and 75 for men. Fertility was quite stable among Jews in Israel, while it turned to be about one half lower among the rest of Jewish communities worldwide. The latter reflected or even often anticipated the general decline of fertility in the more developed countries. Jews in Israel were an exception, becoming with 2.6–2.7 children on average the population with the highest fertility among developed nations. Jews from similar countries of origin who migrated to Israel or to Europe ended up adopting the quite different social norms and behaviors on fertility of their countries of absorption. In Israeli society, community was an important intervening factor in fertility trends resulting in larger families than could be found among Jews with similar backgrounds that moved to other countries. Cultural, religious, and community related determinants of higher fertility in Israel led to a unique surplus of natural increase and helped to maintain a comparatively young age composition among the Jewish population. The number of Jewish births in Israel was higher than the number of Jewish deaths by over 45,000 in 1990, by over 58,000 in 2001, and by over 67,000 in 2004.

In the Diaspora low fertility was the main determinant of rapid Jewish population aging. This in turn significantly contributed to a negative balance between Jewish births and deaths. Among the better documented examples, in the Russian Republic the number of Jewish deaths exceeded the number of Jewish births by over 10,000 in 1988, and by 7,600 in 2000 among a greatly diminished Jewish population. In Germany, the excess of Jewish deaths over Jewish births was over 300 in 1990, and had grown nearly over threefold in 2004 while the Jewish population itself had grown by three thanks to the steady inflow of immigrants from the fsu. In the u.k., each year the number of Jewish deaths surpassed by over 1,000 the number of Jewish births. The spiral of low fertility, aging, and partial erosion of the younger generation through the non-affiliation with Judaism of a large portion of the children of out-marriage foreshadowed significant further changes in the demographic profile of world Jewry.

While the world's developing countries continue to experience fast population growth rates and also the populations of many of the technologically advanced countries recorded substantial growth – increasingly due to international migration rather than to natural increase – the Jewish Diaspora at the beginning of the 21st century was in a rather precarious demographic situation. Thanks to the persisting natural increase in Israel, world Jewish population kept close to zero population growth.

See also *Demography;*Migrations;*Population;*Statistics.


J. Lestschinsky, Probleme der Bevoelkerung-Bewegung bei den Juden (1926); A. Ruppin, Soziologie der Juden, 1 (1930); A. Ruppin, The Jewish Fate and Future (1940); U.O. Schmelz and P. Glikson (ed.), Jewish Population Studies 1961-1968 (1970), 11–94; L. Hersch, in: The Jewish People, Past and Present, 2 (1948), 1–34; R. Bachi, in: jjso, 4 (1962), 172–91; U.O. Schmelz, ibid., 8 (1966), 49–63; M. Davis, ibid., 10 (1968), 177–203. add. bibliography: S. Della-Pergola, La trasformazione demografica della diaspora ebraica (1983); idem, World Jewry Beyond 2000: The Demographic Prospects (1999); idem, "World Jewish Population 2005," in: ajyb, 105 (2005), 87–122; M. Tolts, "The Post-Soviet Jewish Population in Russia and the World," in: Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe, 1–52 (2004), 37–63.

[Usiel Oscar Schmelz /

Sergio DellaPergola (2nd ed.)]

Vital Statistics

views updated

Vital Statistics


Vital statistics are statistics on principal events in the life of an individual. They usually are gathered at the time of an event such as birth, marriage, the dissolution of a marriage, and death. Vital statistics are commonly compiled from records of vital events registered through offices that are organized as part of a vital registration system.

Vital registration systems are generally organized units of government. They presuppose a well-established civil administrative organization with trained officials and, most usually, local offices as well as a central one. Local offices are primarily responsible for the collection of information, while both local and central offices process the information for statistical purposes. Local offices are generally responsible for maintaining a legally valid record of the vital events. Thus they are useful to the inhabitants of the population when it becomes necessary to prove a vital event such as birth, nationality, descent, or relationship by marriage. The information-processing offices that provide vital statistics in summary form are charged with this responsibility in the interest of the formation of public policy. [See Government Statistics.]

The most accurate vital statistics are found in countries that are in an advanced state of economic development; in many of the less developed countries vital registration is still rudimentary, partial, or inaccurate. In order to be complete and reliable, vital registration must be compulsory, i.e., the law must place an obligation on defined classes of persons to notify the registering official of the occurrence of a vital event. This is usually easiest in the case of marriage, which in most countries involves a ceremony before an official of the state or the church, who will record the event, which confers a new status on the spouses. In those countries in which consensual unions are common, however, marriage statistics may give an incomplete count of the number of women who are exposed to a relatively high risk of pregnancy. Furthermore, death registration may be easier to enforce than birth registration, since the disposal of a human body is normally subject to police or sanitary regulations, which require a certificate of registration of death to be produced before the body can be disposed of.

History of vital registration . Vital registration was often preceded by parochial registration of baptisms, burials, and marriages. Parochial registration, however, tends to be incomplete, particularly in the case of births, since not all children who are born are baptized; in particular, the practice relating to the registration of babies who die before baptism may vary in different parishes. In Scandinavia, the work of registration is still carried out by the clergy, although they act as agents of the state.

The oldest systems of vital registration are found in the Scandinavian countries: Finland started in 1628 and Denmark in 1646, Norway and Sweden following in 1685 and 1686 respectively. In America, the General Court in Boston enacted a registration law for the colony of Massachusetts in 1639 which stated “that there be records kept … of the days of every marriage, birth and death of every person within this jurisdiction.” In 1644 an explicit obligation was placed on “all parents, masters of servants, executors and administrators ... to bring unto the clerk of the writs the names of such belonging to them, as shall either be born or die.” The law was tightened in 1692, when penalty clauses for failure to register were reinforced, but the system remained incomplete until the nineteenth century (Gutman 1959).

In England and Wales parochial registration of baptisms and burials began as early as 1538. John Graunt, who is generally considered the father of modern demography, utilized these data in his work Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality, which was first published in 1662. An act passed in 1694 provided for the registration of births and deaths throughout the country, but it was in force for only ten years and few of the returns made under its provisions have been located. Estimates of population in England and Wales in the eighteenth century have to be based on the parochial registers, since the system of civil registration was not established until 1836. Even then, the Births and Deaths Registration Act did not lay down any penalties for failure to comply with its provision, an omission that was not repaired until 1874.

In other European countries vital registration was gradually introduced throughout the nineteenth century, and was complete in most areas by the beginning of the twentieth century. In some states, however, compulsory and complete registration was introduced very much later; in Poland, for example, it was not introduced until 1946. In Russia, vital registration was in the hands of the ecclesiastical authorities before the revolution and was only transferred to the civil power afterwards. A registration area was built up, and by 1926 it was working with reasonable efficiency in European Russia. It has gradually been extended to cover the rest of the Soviet Union.

Outside Europe, North America, and Australia, registration is more recent. Japan, the most industrialized and developed country of Asia, introduced a modern registration law in 1898, although household registers had been kept before that date. In India and Pakistan no complete and compulsory system of vital registration exists at present, although partial and incomplete systems operate in a number of areas. In Africa the position is even less satisfactory. Birth and death registration in colonial days was applied only to the population of European, and sometimes to that of Asian, origin; for the indigenous African population, registration operated in a few towns at the most and was often of questionable accuracy. In Latin America, although registration became compulsory in most areas in the nineteenth century, the systems were frequently lacking in accuracy and left much to be desired in other respects.

In the United States vital registration developed slowly. As is the case in most federal countries, the responsibility for vital registration lies with the individual states and not with the federal government. By 1859 eight states had established registration systems, and the progress was resumed after the Civil War. The federal government’s influence made itself felt after 1902, when the Bureau of the Census was established as a permanent organization. In 1903 Congress passed a law stressing the importance of a unified system of registration, and model registration laws were drafted for the guidance of individual states. A death registration area and later a birth registration area were set up, admission to which depended upon the achievement of a certain degree of completeness of registration.

Administration of vital registration . Systems of vital registration are normally administered through a network of local registration offices, each of which is responsible for a well-defined local area. It is often convenient to have the boundary of the registration district coincide with that of a local government unit. The onus of informing the registrar of the occurrence of a vital event is placed by law on a definite informant or a substitute when the informant is not available. In the case of births, the legal informant is normally the parent, although in a few countries—of which the United States is the outstanding example—responsibility rests with the attendant at the birth. Obviously, this arrangement is possible only when the vast majority of births are medically attended; and, on the whole, registration by the parent is preferred. However, the completeness of birth registration depends on other factors than the identity of the informant.

In the case of a death, the obligation to register again most frequently devolves upon a relative, or, failing him, a person present at the death. In the United States and New Zealand this responsibility, however, devolves upon the undertaker who arranges for the funeral. In many of the more developed countries, the cause of death must also be stated at registration; this responsibility usually has to be carried out by a medical practitioner. Thus, in England and Wales the medical certificate of death is given by the doctor who attended the deceased before death or (in cases of sudden death) by the pathologist who conducted the autopsy. Either of these persons can notify the registrar of the death, but the obligation to register it rests with the next of kin. In the case of marriages the informants are normally the groom and bride, although in some areas it is the person solemnizing the marriage who actually registers it.

The time allowed for registration in different countries varies; it is normally shorter for a death than a birth. As an extreme example, the Cuban law (as of 1950) required a death to be registered immediately, but a birth only had to be registered within a year of its occurrence. In England and Wales five days are allowed for a death registration, but 42 days for the registration of births.

The form in which vital events are registered varies from country to country. As the registration system serves as the legal record of the vital event, a certificate of registration is normally issued to each informant. This may carry all the information obtained at registration, but more frequently some of the material collected is used for statistical purposes only and does not appear on the certificate. The minimum information collected at a birth is normally the date and place of its occurrence, the sex of the child, and the name of its father (in the case of a legitimate birth). In some vital statistics systems, however, a good deal of additional information is collected, e.g., the age of the mother, the occupation or age of the father, the length of the parents’ marriage, how many brothers and sisters the child has, and in some cases its weight at birth. For death registration, the name, age, and sex of the deceased person, together with the date and place of death, constitute the minimum amount of information desirable. In many vital statistics systems information is sought regarding the decedent’s marital status, occupation, and cause of death. The minimum information normally required when a marriage is registered is the marital condition of the bride and groom and their ages, although often details about their occupations and sometimes the occupations of their parents are also included.

There are a number of common difficulties connected with vital registration and vital statistics. In the case of death registration, there have been periodical revisions of the International List of Causes of Death. These revisions have affected the comparability of cause-specific death rates over time. Moreover, the treatment of multiple causes of death may differ in different countries, although the World Health Organization has recently made recommendations, endorsed by the Statistical Commission of the UN, for the adoption of a uniform International Medical Certificate of Death.

Another difficulty lies in the definition of a live birth and in the classification of stillbirths or fetal deaths. Thus, in Belgium a child born alive but dying before registration (that is, within three days of birth) is registered as stillborn. In Colombia, stillbirths are not registrable; in Cuba, survival for at least one day is required before a birth can be registered as live. In Great Britain any child born after the twenty-eighth week of pregnancy that at any time after being expelled from its mother drew breath or showed any sign of life is regarded as liveborn. Stillbirth or fetal death rates calculated in accordance with different definitions therefore cannot be comparable.

The uses of vital statistics . The information collected at vital registration is used principally in the study of population movements. Since censuses can only be taken periodically (often at decennial intervals), vital statistics serve as the principal instrument for making intercensal estimates of population. The decomposition of population growth into births, deaths, and migration is essential if its nature and causes are to be fully understood, and a knowledge of mortality and fertility rates is also necessary if reasonable assumptions are to be made for projection of population trends.

Historically, interest first arose in studying mortality statistics. Reference has already been made to John Graunt’s pioneer study in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, interest in accurate mortality statistics was stimulated by the growth of life insurance, for which adequate data on the variation of mortality with age and sex were necessary, and by the struggle against infectious and other diseases. In this connection, special mention must be made of the work of William Farr, who entered the British General Register Office as compiler of abstracts shortly after its foundation in 1837 and who served in it until his retirement in 1880. He developed the British system of death registration into an instrument for measuring the sanitary condition of the country, and his studies on mortality differences between different occupations contributed to the understanding of industrial hazards. Farr was also one of the prime movers in making mortality statistics internationally comparable and in constructing a statistical nosology of diseases that was to be used in the study of causes of death. The International List of Causes of Death has been revised from time to time, and at present the responsibility for the list lies with the World Health Organization.

Birth registrations form the basis of both fertility and natality statistics. In connection with census data on the structure of the population, they can be used to assess marital fertility and to establish fertility differences between different social groups; they may also be useful in studies on pop-ulstion genetics. In industrial societies, in which mortality is low, population projections will be dependent mainly on the assumptions made with respect to fertility and on the assessment of trends. Complex breakdown of births by parental age, occupation, duration of marriage, birth order, and sometimes interval since preceding birth, are required to make reasonable assumptions; and registration systems have become more complex in order that this information may be made available. Much the same considerations apply to the study of marriage statistics.

Eugene Grebenik

[See alsoCensus; Family, article ondisorganization anddissolution; Fertility; Government statistics; Migration; Mortality; Nuptiality; Population, article onthe field of demography; Public health; Sociology, articles onthe fieldand onthe early history of social research; and the biographies ofGraunt; Kőrösy; Lotka.]


Benjamin, Bernard (1959) 1960 Elements of Vital Statistics. London: Allen & Unwin; Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Edge, Percy Granville 1944 Vital Statistics and Public Health Work in the Tropics. London: Baillière, Tindal & Cox.

Farr, WilliamVital Statistics: A Memorial Volume of Selections from the Writings of William Farr. Edited by Noel A. Humphreys. London: The Sanitary Institute of Great Britain, 1885.

Gutman, Robert 1959 Birth and Death Registration in Massachusetts 1639-1900. New York: Milbank Memorial Fund. → First published in the Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly, Volume 36, 1958, and Volume 37, 1959.

Koren, John (editor) 1918 The History of Statistics: Their Development and Progress in Many Countries. Published for the American Statistical Association. New York: Macmillan.

Kuczynski, Robert R. 1948-1953 Demographic Survey of the British Colonial Empire. 3 vols. Oxford Univ. Press. → Volume 1: West Africa, 1948. Volume 2: South African High Commission Territories: East and Central Africa, Mauritius, and the Seychelles, 1949. Volume 3: West Indian and American Territories, 1953.

Lorimer, Frank 1961 Demographic Information on Tropical Africa. Boston Univ. Press.

Spiegelman, Mortimer 1963 The Organization of the Vital and Health Statistics Monograph Program. Pages 230-249 in Milbank Memorial Fund, Emerging Techniques in Population Research: Proceedings of a Round Table at the Thirty-ninth Annual Conference …September 18-19, 1962. New York: The Fund.

United Nations, Statistical Office 1955 Handbook of Vital Statistics Methods. Studies in Methods, Series F, No. 7. New York: United Nations.

Westergaard, Harald 1932 Contributions to the History of Statistics. London: King.

Vital Statistics

views updated


Vital statistics are perhaps the most widely used national, state, and local data for identifying and addressing major public health issues. In the United States, legal authority for the registration of vital events (births, deaths, marriages, divorces, fetal deaths, and induced terminations of pregnancy [abortions]) resides with the states, and individually with New York City, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories. The states are the legal proprietors of these data and are responsible for maintaining registries and issuing copies of the records.

The existence of a national data system of registration-based vital statistics depends on a cooperative relationship between the states and the federal government. This relationship has evolved over many decades, with its initial beginnings in the early development of the public health movement and the creation of the American federal vital statistics system.


The registration of births, marriages, and deaths has a long history in the United States, beginning with registration laws enacted by the Grand Assembly of Virginia in 1632 and the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639. In enacting this legislation, the early settlers, who were predominantly English, were following English customs. Thus, Virginia law required the clergy to keep a record of all christenings, marriages, and burials in their parishes. The Massachusetts law differed from Virginia's in two important respects: it called for the recording of vital events (births, deaths, and marriages) rather than church-related ceremonies; and it placed responsibility for registration of vital events on government officials rather than the clergy. Little or no statistical use was made of such records, howeveralong with wills and property inventories, they were regarded primarily as statements of fact essential to the protection of individual rights, especially those relating to the ownership and distribution of property.

The impetus for the use of vital records as the basis of a public health data system came from the realization that records of births and deaths, particularly records of deaths by cause of death, could provide information needed for the control of epidemics and the conservation of human life through sanitary reform. The origin of vital statistics in the modern sense can be traced to an analysis of the English bills of mortality published by John Graunt in 1662. Similarly, the clergyman Cotton Mather noted, in 1721, during a severe smallpox epidemic in Boston, that more than one in six of the natural cases died, but only one in sixty of the inoculated cases died.

In the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution resulted in rapid urbanization, overcrowding of cities, and a deterioration of social and living conditions for large sectors of the population. Public health reformers became acutely conscious of the need for general sanitary reform as a means of controlling epidemics of disease, particularly cholera. These early sanitarians used the crude death statistics of the time to arouse public awareness of the need for improved sanitation, and in the process they pressed for more precise statistics through effective registration practices and laws. The work of Edwin Chadwick (18001890) and Dr. William Farr (18071883) in England and of Lemuel Shattuck (17931859) in Massachusetts was instrumental in the development of public health organization and practice, including the recording of vital statistics. Thus, the history of public health is largely the history of vital registration and statistics.

The United States Constitution provided for a decennial census but not a national vital registration system. To obtain national data on births, marriages, and deaths, the decennial censuses in the latter half of the nineteenth century included questions about vital events, such as: "Born within the year," "Married within the year," and "Disease, if died within the year." These census items were soon recognized as inefficient and the results as deficient. Therefore, when the Bureau of the Census was made a permanent agency of the federal government in 1902, the enabling legislation authorized the bureau to obtain annually copies of records filed in the vital statistics offices of those states and cities having adequate death registration systems and to publish data from these records. This marked the birth of the National Vital Statistics System. Ten states and cities provided death records to the Census Bureau in 1902. In 1915, birth registration was added to the system, and by 1933 all states were registering live births and deaths and providing the required data.

In 1946 responsibility for collecting and publishing national vital statistics was transferred from the Census Bureau to the U.S. Public Health Service, first in the National Office of Vital Statistics and later (1960) in the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). In 1987 NCHS became part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the Bureau of the Census received unit record data from the states in hard copy or microfilm. States were reimbursed for copying efforts at four cents per record. Data were transcribed (later key entered) at both the national and state levels, as both states and federal government produced statistics. In 1971 NCHS began an experiment with the state of Florida to receive data on computer tape. This effort expanded and evolved over time, and by 2000, electronic processing and transmission was the norm. NCHS provides partial funding support for state vital statistics efforts and also works with states to implement standards for data elements, editing and coding specifications, quality control procedures, and data transmission schedules.


The National Vital Statistics System includes several major electronic data files, each containing the demographic and health information recorded on all events that occur in the United States. Birth data are recorded in the "natality file," which includes characteristics of mother's age, race, Hispanic origin, education, residence, marital status, month of pregnancy, month prenatal care began, tobacco use, and weight gain during pregnancy. Characteristics of the birth include birth weight, length of gestation, sex, plurality, method of delivery, and congenital anomalies.

The "mortality file" variables include residence, place of occurrence, month of death, age, race, Hispanic origin, birthplace, sex, education, marital status, and underlying and multiple causes of death. The "fetal death file" includes data on all fetal deaths of twenty weeks or more gestation. The characteristics of the mother and the delivery are similar to those for natality, but also include the fetal or maternal conditions causing death.

The "linked birth/infant death data system" includes three separate files: a numerator file with linked birth-infant death records for infants who died during the period; a denominator file of data for all births; and a file of the relatively few infant death records that were not linked to birth certificates.

Unlike the natality and mortality systems, detailed data for marriages and divorces have never covered the entire United States. With data year 1996, NCHS ceased collecting detailed marriage and divorce data from the states that had been providing unit records. Monthly counts of the number of marriages and divorces continue to be obtained from each state.

Data and reports from these files are available at the NCHS web site


The vital statistics system provides counts of the number of times specified vital events have occurred. These counts are useful in themselves. For example, the numbers of births and deaths are used in the estimation of population size. For most purposes, however, other statistical measures are needed. For example, comparisons of births in one place with those in another requires information on the population size of each area. The simplest and cleanest method of making such comparisons is to compute rates that relate the events to the population exposed to the risk of the event (e.g., the number of births to the number of women of child-bearing age).

Many types of relative numbers are used in the analysis of vital statistics. Those used most frequently in the United States are listed below. The reader can find additional information about the definition and computation of these statistics in the works of Weeks (1996), Shryock and Siegel (1976), or Pollard et al. (1991).

Crude rates. The number of events in a given time period divided by the population at risk produces crude rates. The result is multiplied by a constant (typically 1,000 or 100,000) for ease of presentation. Common crude rates include birth, death, marriage, and divorce.

Specific rates. Crude rates may be limited to a specific group, such as deaths from a specified cause or in a specific age group, or births to unmarried women.

Age-adjusted rates. Age-adjustment is a technique used to eliminate the effect of the age distribution of the population on mortality rates. Since the frequency of death varies with age, a measure free of the influences of population composition is needed to make comparisons between areas or over time.

Infant mortality rates. Infant mortality rates reflect the risk of deaths to infants under the age of one year. For infant deaths, the most commonly used estimate of the population at risk (denominator) is the number of live births during the period.

Life tables and life expectancy. A life table is used to measure the effect of mortality on longevity. It shows the mortality experience of a hypothetical group of infants born at the same time and subject to the mortality rates of a specific population group. A life table provides numerous statistics; perhaps the most widely used is life expectancy at birth.


Causes of death are classified for purposes of statistical tabulation according to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which is published by the World Health Organization. Traditionally, a single cause of death is selected for statistical tabulations. When the certifying physician indicates that more than one cause contributed to death, a procedure is required for selecting the single cause to be tabulated. The ICD provides the basic ground rules used to code and classify causes of death, to identify the underlying cause of death, and to compensate for inconsistencies in the reported cause-of-death statement. It also includes definitions of terms such as "underlying cause of death," "live birth," "maternal death," as well as tabulation lists which define the cause-of-death groupings to be used for international comparisons. The ICD delineates the format of the medical certification of death and specific regulations regarding the compilation and publication of statistics on diseases and causes of death.


Over several centuries of development, the vital registration system in the United States has evolved into the primary source of fundamental public health information. Data on deaths, especially causes of death, have been critical for identifying, tracking, and eventually understanding and controlling epidemics of communicable diseases. Today, mortality data are used to study trends and differentials in all kinds of causes of death, both chronic and communicable, as well as those due to homicide, suicide, and unintentional injuries. Infant mortality has traditionally served as a key indicator of general health conditions in a given population. The availability of mortality statistics for small geographic units, such as counties, has contributed uniquely to the value of these data for epidemiologic investigations and surveillance.

Statistics obtained from birth certificates, fetal death reports, and the linked birth/infant death file provide a wealth of information about infant health. Statistics on birth weight, length of gestation, smoking during pregnancy, access to prenatal care, complications of labor and/or delivery, and obstetric procedures are monitored by health care providers and epidemiologists specializing in infant and child health.

In the arena of public policy, vital statistics also provide fundamental information. For example, teen pregnancy and nonmarital childbearing are topics of continuing interest in national welfare policy. Similarly, national health policy is very much concerned with the problem of health disparities among various race and ethnic groups. In these and many other important policy issues the vital statistics system constitutes a frontline source of information that leads to action programs, yields indicators of effectiveness, and generally guides the practice of public health.

Vital statistics are one of the few data systems that are generally available throughout the world. The United Nations and the World Health Organization have led efforts to standardize registration practices, definitions, and statistical measurement. Most countries have at least a rudimentary vital statistics system, and while there are inter-country variations, countries generally adhere to similar registration principles and statistical measures. These data are widely used to make international comparisons of life expectancy, cause-specific mortality, infant deaths, and other important measures. Vital statistics are also used for monitoring population growth, through measures such as total fertility rates. The United Nations publishes many international vital statistics comparisons in its Demographic Yearbook.

Mary Anne Freedman

James A. Weed

(see also: Abortion; Bills of Mortality; Biostatistics; Birth Certificates; Birthrate; Census; Certification of Causes of Death; Chadwick, Edwin; Farr, William; Graunt, John; Infant Mortality Rate; International Classification of Diseases; Life Expectancy and Life Tables; Mortality Rates; National Center for Health Statistics; Rates; Rates: Adjusted; Rates: Age-Adjusted; Shattuck, Lemuel; Statistics for Public Health )


Hetzel, A. M. (1997). History and Organization of the Vital Statistics System. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

Pollard, A. H.; Farhat, Y.; and Pollard, G. N. (1991). Demographic Techniques, 3rd edition. Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press.

Shryock, H. S.; Siegel, J. S.; and Associates. (1976). The Methods and Materials of Demography, condensed by E. G. Stockwell. New York: Academic Press.

Smith, D. P. (1992). Formal Demography. New York: Plenum Press.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (1999). 1997 Demographic Yearbook. New York: United Nations.

Weeks, J. R. (1996). Population, An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, 6th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

World Health Organization (1992). International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th revision. Geneva: Author.

Vital Statistics

views updated


In population studies the term vital events generally includes births, deaths, marriages, divorces, fetal deaths (stillbirths), and induced terminations of pregnancy (abortions). In a majority of countries most, if not all, of these events are recorded through the government's civil registration system, which creates a permanent record of each event.

Vital records have two primary uses. First, they are personal legal documents that are needed by citizens to prove the facts surrounding the event (e.g., age, identity). Second, vital statistics–the data derived from these administrative records–constitute one of the most widely used statistical data systems in the world. Vital statistics form the basis of fundamental demographic and epidemiologic measures and are used in planning and operating health programs, commercial enterprises ranging from life insurance to the marketing of products for infants, and a wide range of government activities.

Early Registration of Vital Events

An early form of the registration of vital events in Western countries were baptisms, burials, and weddings typically recorded in church registers. The first systematic parish register system was established in Sweden in 1608, and similar systems were soon established in Quebec (1610), Finland (1628), and Denmark (1646). However, consolidation of records for entire countries was not attempted until the eighteenth century in France and the early nineteenth century in the United Kingdom.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first government derived from the European tradition to establish a secular vital registration system, requiring that the actual events rather than the ceremonies be recorded and that registration be done by government officials rather than by the clergy. In 1804 France, as part of the Napoleonic Code, made the state responsible for recording births, deaths, and marriages and prescribed who should record each event and what the record should include.

The registration of births, marriages, and deaths in the United States began with registration laws enacted by the Grand Assembly of Virginia in 1632 and the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639. Connecticut, Plymouth, and eventually the other colonies followed suit. Little or no statistical use was made of these records. They were regarded as statements of fact essential to the protection of individual rights, especially rights relating to the ownership and distribution of property.

Modern Use of Vital Records

The impetus for using vital records as the basis of a statistical data system came from the realization that records of births and deaths constituted a source of information about the condition of the human population. The modern origin of vital statistics can be traced to the analysis of the English Bills of Mortality published by the pioneer demographer John Graunt (1620–1674), in 1662. Graunt's work was followed by that of Edmund Halley (1656–1742), mathematician and astronomer, who in 1693 constructed the first scientific life expectancy table. Over time the analysis of mortality data by cause of death became an important source of information that was used in the control of epidemics and to support sanitary reform.

The United States Constitution, adopted in 1787, provided for a decennial census but not a national vital registration system. Thus, legal authority for the registration of vital events was left to the states. The geographic scope of the U.S. registration areas expanded rapidly, but it was not until the 1930s that it included all the states and the District of Columbia. When the U.S. Census Bureau became a permanent agency of the federal government in 1902, the enabling legislation authorized the bureau to obtain annually copies of records filed in the vital statistics offices of states and cities that had adequate death registration systems and to publish data from those records. This marked the beginning of the National Vital Statistics System. Ten states and cities provided death records to the Census Bureau in 1902. In 1915 birth registration was added to the system, and by 1933 all states were registering live births and deaths with acceptable event coverage and providing the required data.

In 1946 responsibility for collecting and publishing national vital statistics in the United States was transferred from the Census Bureau to the Public Health Service, first in the National Office of Vital Statistics and later (1960) in the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), which is now part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services.

International Statistics

Vital statistics are one of the few data systems that are generally available throughout the world. The United Nations and the World Health Organization have led efforts to standardize registration practices, definitions, and statistical measurement. Most industrialized nations have vital statistics systems that in scope and accuracy equal or exceed that of the United States. In addition, most developing countries have at least a rudimentary vital statistics system. Although there are intercountry variations, in general countries adhere to similar registration principles and statistical measures. These data, ideally in combination with census statistics, are widely used to make international comparisons of life expectancy, cause-specific mortality, infant deaths, and the like. Vital statistics also are used to monitor population growth through measures such as total fertility rates. The United Nations publishes many international vital statistics comparisons in its Demographic Yearbook, which has been issued annually since 1948.

Sources of Vital Statistics

The best source of vital statistics is a complete civil registration system. In countries in which data from civil registration do not exist or are deficient, other demographic data collection methods may be used to gather information on the incidence of vital events and to estimate vital statistics. These methods include population censuses, demographic sample surveys, and sample registration areas.

A population census is a complete enumeration of the population of a defined area with reference to a specified date. If the census includes appropriate questions (e.g., births and deaths in each household during the past year), the data can be used to estimate vital rates in the recent past.

A sample survey collects more detailed information than does a census, but from only a portion of the population. Thus, although it provides added depth, rare events may be missed and reliability may be diminished because of sampling errors.

In general population censuses and sample surveys are less desirable sources of vital statistics because they typically do not provide the detail available from a civil registration system. In addition, the methods used to estimate vital statistics rates from these data sources are based on assumptions about and approximations of the relationships between various characteristics of the population. Thus, they may be less useful for the analysis of trends and detailed statistics. Furthermore, data from these sources cannot serve the important legal purposes of administrative records from a civil registration system.

In countries where civil registration is not fully developed sample registration may be used to register vital events and estimate vital rates. Events are registered in a specific area of the country on a continuous basis. If it is gradually expanded, a sample registration system can evolve into national civil registration. The main drawback of a sample registration system is that it does not provide vital rates for local areas outside the sample area.

See also: Census; Demographic Surveillance Systems; Demographic Surveys, History and Methodology of; Farr, William; Graunt, John; Population Registers.


Hetzel, Alice M. 1997. U.S. Vital Statistics System. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2000. Demographic Yearbook 1998:Fiftieth Issue. New York: United Nations.

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2001. Principles and Recommendations for a Vital Statistics System, Revision 2. New York: United Nations.

internet resource.

National Vital Statistics System and Vital Statistics of the United States. 2002. <>.

Mary Anne Freedman

James A. Weed

vital statistics

views updated

vi·tal sta·tis·tics / ˈvīdl stəˈtistiks/ • pl. n. 1. quantitative data concerning a population, such as the number of births, marriages, and deaths. 2. inf. the measurements of a woman's bust, waist, and hips.

vital statistics

views updated

vital statistics Statistics of births, deaths, and marriages within a country, which provide the essential basis for demography. They include crude rates matching vital events to total populations, and more sophisticated measures of fertility, nuptiality, and mortality. Their quality depends on the accuracy of vital-event registers. State registration is now usual (in Britain since 1837); church registers formerly provided some vital-event data.

statistics, vital

views updated

statistics, vital See VITAL STATISTICS.

vital statistics

views updated

vital statistics pl. n. statistics relating to the births, marriages, deaths, and incidence of disease within a population.