This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

If you are a user of my textbook and would like to suggest a blog post idea, please email me at:

Friday, November 30, 2012

Drugs, Crime, and the Exploitation of Migrants

The Migration Policy Institute just released a report by Steven Dudley examining the link between drug cartels, violent crime, and the exploitation of migrants in Mexico and Central America who are heading north for work. While the outline of the story is not necessarily new, it is very useful to hear the story from someone with on-the-ground investigative experience. Cutting to the chase, here's an excerpt from his conclusion:
Migrants’ journey north from Central America through Mexico to the United States, always perilous and unpredictable, has gotten several new obstacles in recent years. These are the result of a transformation in the region’s criminal organizations. In Mexico what were small, family-run DTOs have morphed into large, criminal operations with military prowess and a large portfolio of criminal activities, including that of kidnapping for ransom. At the same, street gangs have proliferated in the region, providing "eyes and ears" for these larger criminal organizations to seize large numbers of migrants en route.
This is all wrapped up in the comments that former President of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, made to the Economist last week, lamenting that the drug business is impossible to deal with as long as there is a huge market in the US for drugs that are not legal, but the US does allow the legal selling of guns and ammunition to people who use them in the drug violence. The US has created a huge problem, and Latin Americans are bearing the brunt of it.

But there is more trouble in the US for many of these migrants--getting to the US is not the end of their woes. My SDSU colleague, Sheldon Zhang, has just completed a study funded by the National Institute of Justice in which he found that "[n]early a third of unauthorized migrant workers in San Diego County have been victims of labor trafficking and more than half have experienced other labor abuses."

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Stunning Swing in South Korean Demography

East Asia is one of the most xenophobic regions in the world, routinely and unapologetically keeping foreigners (including those from other East Asian countries) from becoming permanent members of their respective societies. That is why I was truly stunned by the article in today's New York Times suggesting that demographic diversity is starting to find a home in South Korea.
Only a decade ago, school textbooks still urged South Koreans to take pride in being of “one-blood” and “ethnically homogeneous.” Now, the country is facing the prospect of becoming a multiethnic society. While the foreign-born population is still small compared with countries with a tradition of immigration, it’s enough to challenge how South Koreans see themselves.
Among the factors driving this development is the influx of women from Southeast Asia who have come to marry rural South Korean men who have difficulty attracting Korean women willing to embrace country life. The number of marriage migrants grew to 211,000 last year from 127,000 in 2007, most of them women from Vietnam and other poorer Asian countries drawn to a better life in South Korea.
One of every 10 marriages in South Korea now involves a foreign spouse. Although overall numbers of schoolchildren in South Korea have been declining — to 6.7 million this year from 7.7 million in 2007 — as a result of one of the world’s lowest birth rates, the number of multiethnic students has been climbing by 6,000 a year in the same period.
“A multicultural society is not just coming; it’s already here,” Ms. Lee [originally from the Philippines], a member of the governing Saenuri Party, said in an interview at her office in the National Assembly.
The change is driven by the combination of the low birth rate, which has created a demand for labor at the younger ages, and by urbanization, which has attracted young women to cities, where they are not tied to the traditional gender roles typical of rural society. Regardless of the reasons, though, this has to be a good sign for the region.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Yet Another Type of Biofuel

Creating energy from vegetable mass is a great idea, as long as it doesn't wind up competing with the ever-increasing demand for food, as I have mentioned before. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have just reported on their research (in the journal Algal Research) suggesting that ocean algae can be grown as efficiently as freshwater algae for the purpose of creating biofuels. This means that not only does this source of biofuel no compete with food, but it also does not compete for the use of freshwater, which is an increasingly contested resource. The San Diego Union-Tribune has the story:
The scientists genetically engineered marine algae to make valuable industrial enzymes in addition to oil. This feat had been performed in freshwater algae but not in marine species, said UC San Diego researcher Stephen Mayfield, who led the study.
They experimented on a species of algae named Dunaliella tertiolecta, which has a high oil content. They inserted five genes, allowing production of five kinds of industrial enzymes.
“What we showed is that we could do the genetic engineering that’s going to be required to really get costs down,” Mayfield said.Algal biofuels must compete not only against fossil fuels but against other crops, including corn and nonfood “cellulosic” plant material for ethanol, and the jatropha bush, which produces oily seeds. All of these biofuels face limitations that prevent their large-scale adoption anytime soon.
The latter is key, of course, but it is obvious that the sooner we start planning for the use of these sustainable sources of fuel, the better off we'll be.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Mexico's Demography Will Help Drive its Future

This week's Economist has a special section on Mexico and a big part of the story is about Mexico's demography, including its declining birth rate, and its diminishing wave of immigrants north to the US.
Fewer Mexicans now move to the United States than come back south. America’s fragile economy (with an unemployment rate nearly twice as high as Mexico’s) has dampened arrivals and hastened departures. Meanwhile, the make-up of Mexican migration is changing. North of the border, legal Mexican residents probably now outnumber undocumented ones. The human tide may turn along with the American economy, but the supply of potential border-hoppers has plunged: whereas in the 1960s the average Mexican woman had seven children, she now has two. Within a decade Mexico’s fertility rate will fall below America’s.
Undervaluing trade and overestimating immigration has led to bad policies. Since September 11th 2001, crossing the border has taken hours where it once took minutes, raising costs for Mexican manufacturers (and thus for American consumers). Daytrips have fallen by almost half. More crossing-points and fewer onerous checks would speed things up on the American side; pre-clearance of containers and passengers could be improved if Mexico were less touchy about having American officers on its soil (something which Canada does not mind). After an election in which 70% of Latinos voted for Mr Obama, even America’s “wetback”-bashing Republicans should now see the need for immigration-law reform.
The article also notes that the demographic dividend for Mexico will nonetheless be less dramatic than it has been in Asia for two reasons: (1) the birth rate has not dropped as quickly, so the age structure is not as favorable; and (2) Mexico has not made the same kind of improvements in its educational system as have Asian countries. Nonetheless, it was very encouraging to read that Mexico's Minister of Higher Education is Rodolfo Tuirán, a well known demographer. 

The Economist's urging that America pay closer and more realistic attention to Mexico echoes the comments made on CNN this weekend by Robert Kaplan, author of a new book on "The Revenge of Geography."

Monday, November 26, 2012

Urban Strain Goes With the Forest Rain in the Amazon

As if the Brazilian rain forest wasn't strained enough by farmers deforesting the region, a growing source of environmental stress in the Amazon is rapid urbanization, as reported by Simon Romero for the New York Times. The Amazon is the fastest growing region of Brazil, fueled by migrants and by a higher-than-average birth rate.
Of the 19 Brazilian cities that the latest census indicates have doubled in population over the past decade, 10 are in the Amazon. Altogether, the region’s population climbed 23 percent from 2000 to 2010, while Brazil as a whole grew just 12 percent.
Various factors are fueling this growth, among them larger family sizes and the Amazon’s high levels of poverty in comparison with other regions that draw people to the cities for work. While Brazil’s birthrate has fallen to 1.86 children per woman, one of the lowest in Latin America, the Amazon has Brazil’s highest rate, at 2.42.
Why is this happening? It's the economy, stupid (to borrow from the 1992 presidential campaign of Bill Clinton). Besides the processing of the region's burgeoning agricultural sector, there are big energy and industrial projects, including the building of hydroelectric dams and open-pit mining. All of this means jobs, and a way out of poverty for many Brazilians.
The soaring population growth in some cities in the Amazon — called the “world’s last great settlement frontier” by Brian J. Godfrey, a geography professor at Vassar College who is the co-author of “Rainforest Cities” — is intensifying an urbanization that has been advancing for decades. For more than 20 years, a majority of the Brazilian Amazon’s population has lived in urban areas.
So, instead of directly affecting the environment, the growing urban population makes an indirect, but still very large impact on the rain forest environment. Is it good for the people who are employed by all of this development? Almost certainly. Is this sustainable? Almost certainly not.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Web-Based Mapping of American Community Survey Data

If you are like me (and a lot of other people I know) you aren't overly happy with the revamped as a source of data from the US Census. Although there is a huge amount of data available to all of us for free, it is not easy to get what you want. That is why the resources of can be so useful. As I have referenced before, this is a project created several years ago by Andrew Beveridge at Queens College and the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York. He and his group have created sets of maps of the census and survey data, with a nice array of data from the 2005-09 American Community Survey mapped at the block level for the entire country accessible online through the New York Times website. This is tremendously useful and a good advertisement for the more detailed services that Beveridge and his group can provide.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Abortion Rate Declined in US Even as Birth Rate Dropped

This week the US Centers for Disease Control issued the latest installment in their abortion surveillance reports. The good news was that the abortion rate dropped in the US in this most recent period. NBC News summarizes the story:
U.S. abortions fell 5 percent during the Great Recession in the biggest one-year decrease in at least a decade, according to government figures released Wednesday. 
While many states have aggressively restricted access to abortion, most of those laws were adopted in the past two years and are not believed to have played a role in the decline. 
The reason for the decline wasn't clear, but some experts said it may be due to better use of birth control during tough economic times. Their theory is that some women believe they can't afford to get pregnant.
Keep in mind that the abortion rate declined even though the birth rate was declining, which is the indirect evidence that women are relying more on contraception to avoid getting pregnant in the first place.

The increased care with which women are avoiding conception in the face of economic uncertainty is similar to the story being told in Sub-Saharan Africa. Tom A. Moultrie, Takudzwa S. Sayi and Ian M. Timæus have a paper in the latest issue of Population Studies detailing the role that postponement of births has been playing in African fertility levels.

The shift from abortion to contraception has also played out recently in the Republic of Georgia, which for some time now has had the highest abortion rate in the world. The abortion rate in Georgia dropped by half between 2005 (when the results of a Reproductive Health Survey were released) and now. This appears to be due especially to a USAID-assisted program that brought contraceptives to Georgian women, so that they no longer had to rely on abortion as their main method of fertility control. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the birth rate has risen in Georgia as a result. It has been low for a long time and no one expects it to go up any time soon.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Role of the Potato in Demographic History

Rafael Pereira recently pointed me to a newly published article by Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian of NBER laying out the role of the potato in helping to promote population growth and urbanization in the 18th and 19th centuries. The article appears in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, but it isn't yet available for free online, whereas we do have access to an earlier working paper version. In chapters 2 and 11 my text, I note that scholars have believed for some time that the introduction of the potato from the new world to the old world was one of the elements that improved nutrition, thus helping to lower mortality and launch the demographic revolution. Nunn and Qian add to the story by putting a number on this contribution:
According to our most conservative estimates, the introduction of the potato accounts for approximately one-quarter of the growth in Old World population and urbanization between 1700 and 1900.
Of course the most famous aspect of the potato was the fact that the Irish relied upon a specific variety so heavily that when a fungus hit the island, the crops were wiped out, leading to a famine. This seems like a classic Malthusian dilemma, but of course Malthus died a decade and a half before that happened. Might he have thought such a thing possible? It turns out that 6th Edition of his book on Population is available on-line and a quick consultation turns up the fact that he already knew, early in the 19th century, how important the potato was to population growth in Ireland, and he worried that this was going to lead to early marriages, high birth rates, and overpopulation:
The details of the population of Ireland are but little known. I shall only observe therefore, that the extended use of potatoes has allowed of a very rapid increase of it during the last century. But the cheapness of this nourishing root, and the small piece of ground which, under this kind of cultivation, will in average years produce the food for a family, joined to the ignorance and depressed state of the people, which have prompted them to follow their inclinations with no other prospect than an immediate bare subsistence, have encouraged marriage to such a degree, that the population is pushed much beyond the industry and present resources of the country; and the consequence naturally is, that the lower classes of people are in the most impoverished and miserable state. The checks to the population are of course chiefly of the positive kind, and arise from the diseases occasioned by squalid poverty, by damp and wretched cabins, by bad and insufficient clothing, and occasional want. To these positive checks have, of late years, been added the vice and misery of intestine commotion, of civil war, and of martial law [Part II, Chapter X, paragraph 38].

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Inserting Population Into the Development Agenda

Thanks to an email from SOMEDE (Sociedad Mexicana de Demografía), I have been alerted to a new effort by the UNFPA and others to rethink the world development goals, including an emphasis on population. At the moment the demographic components of the Millennium Development Goals emphasize improving health. No one can argue with the importance of that, but we must also carefully consider the broad consequences of continued, and geographically uneven, population growth. Without that in the equation, all other efforts will have weaker outcomes.

If you go to this website:, you will find the following setup comments:
This space is dedicated to the global thematic consultation on population dynamics in the post-2015 UN development agenda, co-convened by UN-DESA, UNFPA, UN-Habitat and IOM in partnership with the Government of Switzerland
It is an open and inclusive forum for civil society, policy makers, government officials, donors, UN staff and all other stakeholders to discuss the scope and priorities of the post-2015 development agenda. 
We aim to stimulate dialogue, facilitate an exchange of ideas and collect and document the views, experiences and perspectives of key stakeholders vis-à-vis population dynamics on this forum. It is an opportunity to contribute to the setting of shared global priorities in the context of ameliorating poverty and inequality, whilst championing universal rights and values. 
Please join us for a constructive, dynamic and lively dialogue.
This has been put into place by Barney Cohen, who recently left the US National Academy of Sciences to become Chief of the Population Studies Branch of the UN's Population Division, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for helping to improve the global visibility of population issues.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Should the Retirement Age Be Raised to Help Balance the Budget?

During President Carter's administration in the 1970s, the age at which a person can receive full Social Security benefits in the United States was raised to 66 for people born between 1943 and 1954 (basically the early baby boomers), and incrementally up to 67 for people born since 1960. People in those birth cohorts can still retire as early as age 62, but your monthly benefits are reduced because the actuarial principal is that no matter when you retire from age 62 on, you will receive the same total payout from the government. For this reason, the impact of further raising the age at which full benefits may not be very large. Rather, the short-term goal should be to keep people in the labor force as along as possible because that means that they are continuing to contribute the very payroll taxes that are being paid to the current Social Security beneficiaries.

Paul Krugman of Princeton University and the New York Times had a different take this week (as on previous occasions) on why the so-called retirement age should not be increased. He argues that life expectancy beyond age 65 has not increased enough, especially among minority group members, to justify this increase in the retirement age. So, I went back to the life expectancy data from the National Center for Health Statistics of the US Centers for Disease Control to see if that was true. Life expectancy didn't change much between 1935 when Social Security was designed, and 1950, when comparable data for more recent periods became available. In 1950, life expectancy for a 65 year old white female was 15.1 years and that increased to 20.4 in 2009 (the most recent year available), for a 5.3 year gain. For white males the gain in life expectancy over that 59 year period was 4.9 years. For African-American females the gain has been 4.4 years and for African-American males it has been 2.9 years. We don't have that same time series for Hispanics, but the current data suggest that Hispanic elders have a higher life expectancy at age 65 than non-Hispanic whites, so we can conservatively apply to them the trend shown by non-Hispanic whites. 

The conclusion: Since 1935 the age at eligibility for full Social Security benefits has increased by only two years--from 65 to 67. Yet, even for the most disadvantaged group--black males--life expectancy at age 65 has increased by nearly three years. Thus, the recommendation of President Obama's Deficit Reduction Commission that the retirement age be increased by another year (to 68) by 2050 does not seem unreasonable.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Demographics of the US Election Revisited

The discussion surrounding the demographics of the US election has tended to lump the "Red" states together as though they represented a demographically homogeneous group of people voting Republican, while the "Blue" states were somehow homogeneously Democratic. In particular, commentators laid it out that Romney had won the "Confederacy," with the implication that southern states were distinctly different from the rest of the nation. Karen Cox at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, has a nice rebuttal to that idea in today's New York Times.

Voters in Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans, Birmingham, Ala., and even Jackson, Miss., gave Mr. Obama substantial majorities, not because they are out of step with the rest of the country but because they are part of the same urban-rural divide that drives voting everywhere.
So if we’re going to apply the term “Confederacy,” then perhaps we can all agree that while a majority of Southern white voters seem intransigent to change, the region is nevertheless being transformed by its changing demographics.

Virginia, home to the capital of the Confederacy, went for Mr. Obama. Florida, part of the original Confederacy, also went for Mr. Obama. North Carolina, which Mr. Obama carried in 2008, went to Mr. Romney, but by a very slim margin — more attributable to the economy and job losses than to any conspiracy of Confederate dunces.    

She argues, in particular, that much of the divide is as much along rural/urban lines as anything else. Rural areas everywhere in the country tend to be conservative politically, while urban areas are more liberal. And, since the nation is predominantly urban, you can imagine where that road goes. 

I thought about that same exact point yesterday as my wife and I watched the movie "Lincoln." The debate about the 13th amendment abolishing slavery played out in the House of Representatives of a country that, at the time, had only northern states. It passed in the House by only two votes, back in the day when the country was still largely rural.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A New Kind of Biofuel?

Like many people, I have been very worried about the diversion of arable land and edible crops into the production of biofuel. It may be fine for the elite rich countries to think about, but as a species we have to think about how we're going to be feeding 9-10 billion by the middle of this century. Matthew Wald of the New York Times reported this week that research into what is called cellulosic biofuels seems about to pay off.
Officials at two companies that have built multimillion-dollar factories say they are very close to beginning large-scale, commercial production of these so-called cellulosic biofuels, and others are predicting success in the months to come. 
In Columbus, Miss., KiOR has spent more than $200 million on a plant that is supposed to mix shredded wood waste with a patented catalyst, powdered to talcumlike consistency. Its process does in a few seconds what takes nature millions of years: removes the oxygen from the biomass and converts the other main ingredients, hydrogen and carbon, into molecules that can then be processed into gasoline and diesel fuel.
At such plants, the goal is sometimes to make ethanol and sometimes gasoline or diesel fuel or their ingredients. The pathways to make the biofuels are varied. But the feedstocks have something in common: they are derived from plants and trees, but not from food crops like corn kernels, which are the basis of most of the biofuel currently made in the United States.
And, importantly, customers are already lining up, including FedEx and Chevron.
The holy grail is to find a way to profitably make renewable fuels from otherwise wasted biomass, as opposed to valuable food crops.
“If we can do it with biomass, then there is no more discussion of food versus fuel; it’s over,” Mr. Ortega [CEO of a Spanish company setting up a plant in Kansas] said.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Pre-Term Births Are a Global Priority

A few days ago, I mentioned the news from the US Centers for Disease Control that the high infant death rate in Mississippi and other southern states was due especially to an above average rate of pre-term births. It turns out that today was "World Prematurity Day" at USAID, supporting an effort by the World Health Organization to raise awareness of this issue, which speaks directly to Millennium Development Goal 5 relating to the improvement in child health. Perhaps not too surprisingly, the regions of the world with the highest rates of prematurity are Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia.
Over 60% of preterm births occur in Africa and South Asia (Figure 1). The 10 countries with the highest numbers include Brazil, the United States, India and Nigeria, demonstrating that preterm birth is truly a global problem. Of the 11 coun- tries with preterm birth rates of over 15%, all but two are in sub-Saharan Africa (Figure 2). In the poorest countries, on average, 12% of babies are born too soon compared with 9% in higher-income countries. Within countries, poorer families are at higher risk.
This, of course, is the problem. There is not a single set of biological causes of prematurity, so there isn't an easy fix. The basic solution is to improve the lives of pregnant women, making sure that risks are identified and monitored. Healthy, empowered women, who are neither too young nor too old when they get pregnant will be at the lowest risk of prematurity, so moving a greater fraction of women into those categories is the solution, but it is a societal-wide fix, not simply an individual-level treatment regime. Perhaps the only good news out of this is that the infant mortality rates have gone down so much over the years everywhere that we are now able to concentrate on the really hardest issues.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Will Texas Go From Red to Blue?

Prior to the recent US presidential election I had read Gail Collins' book "As Texas Goes..." which includes an interview with demographer Steven Murdock discussing the future importance of the Latino vote in that state. As expected, at least this time around, the state did vote for Romney, but it is clear in the aftermath of President Obama's re-election that Latinos in Texas are in the spotlight as people contemplate the state's future, which includes lots of immigrants and children of immigrants. The immediate thought among most people is that Texas will become a "blue" state because the Democrats did so much better this year among Latinos than did the Republicans. Ryan Lizza, writing for The New Yorker, notes that even the state's newly elected Republican US Senator Ted Cruz, is worried about this.
“If Republicans do not do better in the Hispanic community,” he said, “in a few short years Republicans will no longer be the majority party in our state.” He ticked off some statistics: in 2004, George W. Bush won forty-four per cent of the Hispanic vote nationally; in 2008, John McCain won just thirty-one per cent. On Tuesday, Romney fared even worse. 
“In not too many years, Texas could switch from being all Republican to all Democrat,” he said. “If that happens, no Republican will ever again win the White House. New York and California are for the foreseeable future unalterably Democrat. If Texas turns bright blue, the Electoral College math is simple. We won’t be talking about Ohio, we won’t be talking about Florida or Virginia, because it won’t matter. If Texas is bright blue, you can’t get to two-seventy electoral votes. The Republican Party would cease to exist. We would become like the Whig Party. Our kids and grandkids would study how this used to be a national political party. ‘They had Conventions, they nominated Presidential candidates. They don’t exist anymore.’ ”
However, Cruz (who is of Cuban-origin) also notes that many Hispanics share the traditional values of hard work and strong family ties that are regularly seen as being central to the Republican Party. If non-Hispanic Republicans come to understand this, the story may change. Indeed, even Sean Hannity of Fox News has flipped on immigration. If Fox News gets behind this, will that matter? The first task would have to be to convince people in Texas cities, which are already more blue than the more rural parts of the state, as you might anticipate, and as you can see in a very interesting map put together by Kirk Goldsberry, an assistant professor of geography at Michigan State University

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Trying to Get a Handle on Alzheimer's

Alzheimer's disease (sometimes called "Oldtimer's" disease) is named after the German physician, Alois Alzheimer, who first described it more than 100 years ago. It is a devastating disease because it effectively kills a person socially years before they mortally succumb. While there is still no treatment or cure for the disease, Robert Bazell on NBC News reported today on new studies just published in the New England Journal of Medicine that move the science forward a bit in terms of the causes.
A gene mutation whose discovery was announced Wednesday triples the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. It is a headline that might sound frightening but shouldn’t evoke fear. 
The mutation in the gene called TREM2 is rare, occurring in about 1 in 150 people. By comparison one in five people carry a form of a different gene called APO-E that also triples the risk. One in 50 carries a form of APO-E that raises risk 13 times. APO-E’s relation to Alzheimer’s was discovered in 1993. So in terms of public health implications, TREM2 is a small player, and is one of an ever growing list of genes implicated in Alzheimer’s. 
The leading contender as the main cause of Alzheimer’s is the accumulation of plaques of protein called amyloid-beta. It is likely that the inflammatory response is attempting to keep that buildup at bay. Last July, Stefansson’s team [one of the researcher's whose work was just published] discovered a different gene mutation, even more rare, that actually protects against Alzheimer’s. That, too, was important science because that gene is responsible for production of amyloid-beta. So it both supports the hypothesis about the cause and leads to ideas about how to make drugs to stop it.
If you know or have known someone with Alzheimer's, as I have, you'll appreciate the fact that we are dealing with not only a serious cause of death, but with a serious cause of distress among the survivors during that painful interval between the onset of the disease and death.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mississippi's Infant Death Rate the Same as in Sri Lanka

The infant death rate in Mississippi is the highest of any state in the US, and is comparable to a number of less developed nations, such as Sri Lanka and Botswana. These are the sad facts from the Centers for Disease Control and are the numbers behind a nicely detailed story that appeared today on CNN.
Mississippi is 50th out of 50 states when it comes to infant mortality, and it's been that way for a long time, says state health officer Mary Currier.

There's not one clear explanation. Experts cite a multitude of factors that are also seen in other parts of the country and around the world.

For example, Mississippi leads the nation in obesity, which can carry with it a host of complications that might affect a baby, such as hypertensive disorders, says Dr. Michelle Owens, an obstetrician-gynecologist at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Other Southern states with a high prevalence of obesity -- Alabama and Louisiana, for instance -- also have some of the nation's highest rates for infant mortality. A 2010 study also found that overweight and obese women are at higher risk for preterm birth.
Poverty, lack of insurance, and teen pregnancies all contribute to elevated levels of infant deaths and these are more characteristic of Mississippi and its neighboring states than in the rest of the US. Cross-cutting these factors is race. The CDC data show that the infant death rate for blacks in the US (12.67 deaths per live births) is 2.3 times higher than for non-Hispanic whites (5.52) and 2.8 times higher than for Asians, who have the lowest infant mortality of any group (4.51). To be sure, poverty, lack of insurance, and teen births help to account for this difference, but the article points out that black women are much more likely than others to give birth prematurely, which drives up the risk of a baby dying. This has been true for a long time, but no one knows why it happens.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Your Dog is Good for Your Health

About four in ten households in the US includes a dog member (the "nation within a nation," as Spencer Quinn calls them), according to data from the Humane Society of the United States. There are many reasons to have a dog, but a session at the recent annual meeting of the American Public Health Association offered up emerging evidence that they really are good for your health.
When Jacqueline Epping first told her colleagues she was interested in using dog walking to promote health, they weren’t always on board.

But in the past decade, a growing body of literature shows a strong relationship between dog walking and health. 
“Dogs can and do increase physical activity, and we even see some secondary health benefits,” Epping said.

The body of knowledge around dog walking is “relatively young,” she said, but there is a “robust body of evidence” as to the health benefits of pets, including lower cholesterol and blood pressure, reduced stress, improved mental health, speedier recovery, increased longevity after a heart attack and improved quality of life among older adults, just to name a few.
Most of us who have a dog are aware of the mental health benefits they offer. Dogs regularly make appearances in hospitals and other places to brighten up people's lives. But it is good to know that there is an even longer list of health benefits with which they are associated. In the war against obesity, for example, they may be an important medicine.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Aging Populations Slow Economic Growth

On Friday, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) produced a new set of economic growth projections for the world. The basic message is that aging populations are dragging down the richer countries. The OECD website has a very nice short video of the highlights of the report, and Floyd Norris of The New York Times provides some background:
“The active share of the population has to finance the old population,” said Asa Johansson, a senior economist in the organization and the principal author of the report, explaining why the rising proportion of older people is expected to reduce growth.

The process is expected to be particularly rapid in China. In 2010, that country had just 11.3 people over 65 for each 100 people in the working-age population, less than half of Britain’s 25.1 figure and well below the United States’s 19.9. But the United Nations estimates that by 2045, the dependency ratio in China will be 39, almost exactly the same as in Britain and well above the 34.6 figure forecast for the United States. 
The O.E.C.D. report said that more rapid aging in China “partly explains why India and Indonesia will overtake China’s growth rate in less than a decade.” It forecast that China’s G.D.P. would grow at a rate of 2.3 percent a year from 2030 to 2060, little more than the 2 percent it forecast for the United States. But it projected growth of 3.3 percent in Indonesia and 4 percent in India.
The population data come from the United Nations Population Division, so there is nothing inherently new here. Indeed, this message has been out there in the demographic literature for a long time, especially in the writings of Ron Lee of UC Berkeley, and Andrew O. Mason of the University of Hawaii. Still, it is a good reminder of the way in which demographic trends underly major changes taking place in the world. Of particular note is that the UN population projections do not take into account the possible future impact of immigration into some of the aging countries, but Norris does make the point:
One thing that could render these forecasts wrong would be an increase in immigration. For South Korea, which now seems to be on course to rival Japan as one of the oldest — and slowest-growing — countries in the world by late in this century, an obvious source of new workers would be the much younger North Korea, if politics ever made that possible. For many other countries, a source would be less developed nations, something that is politically unpopular in both the United States and Western Europe, and all but anathema in Japan.
Perhaps the politics of that will change someday, as young immigrants are viewed not as competitors for limited employment opportunities but as sources of tax revenue to help support aging populations.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Demographics of the Electoral College

Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog in the New York Times, created originally for the 2008 presidential election campaign, helped to bring public exposure to the number of electoral votes needed to become President. The history behind the electoral college is nicely explained on the website of the Federal Election Commission, with the number of electoral votes accorded each state being the sum of that state's number of senators (always two) and the number of members of the House of Representatives (always at least one). So, each state has a minimum of three Electoral College votes, but the rest are distributed according to the number of seats in the House, which are based on the results from each decennial census. Thus, every ten years there is a shift in the Electoral College votes among the states in line with the shifting of House seats, as happened after the 2010 census

So, the map of the US by electoral votes per state is obviously similar to the map of the states by population size, and Slate has put together a very nice cartogram showing how the US would look from this perspective, based on the Electoral College votes received by President Obama and Governor Romney.

And, speaking of maps, Justin Stoler of the University of Miami sent me a very interesting map of party affiliation by county in Florida, where you can readily envision the power of education in helping to decide an election.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Demographics Drove the US Election

I mentioned briefly on election night that demographics had been decisive in the re-election of President Obama, not to mention other races for the House of Representatives and the Senate. The news media have been all over the story of demography driving the election. The New York Times put together a very nice graphic showing that women, Latinos, and younger voters were the important demographic "swing" groups. There simply are not enough non-Hispanic white men in the US to carry the Republican Party to victory anymore. If the party is to remain viable it will almost certainly have to change its positions on women's reproductive rights and on immigrant and immigration issues.

The election was also a victory for "arithmetic," exemplified by Nate Silver's very useful analysis of the opinion polls that were being conducted literally on a daily basis as the election neared. In his algorithm, one of the key ingredients is the appropriate weighting given in poll results to the demographics of likely voters. You can see a discussion of this on last night's Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bringing Dengue Fever Out of the Closet

Dengue fever is transmitted by mosquitos (albeit a different species of mosquito than transmits malaria) and thrives in areas that are also home to malaria. It is not as fatal as malaria, but it can be debilitating, and it can be controlled--if it is out in the open where people can talk about it and do something about it. A story in today's New York Times suggests that India is a major problem in this respect.
India has become the focal point for a mosquito-borne plague that is sweeping the globe. Reported in just a handful of countries in the 1950s, dengue (pronounced DEN-gay) is now endemic in half the world’s nations. 
“The global dengue problem is far worse than most people know, and it keeps getting worse,” said Dr. Raman Velayudhan, the World Health Organization’s lead dengue coordinator.
A senior Indian government health official, who agreed to speak about the matter only on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that official figures represent a mere sliver of dengue’s actual toll.

The problem with that policy, said Dr. Manish Kakkar, a specialist at the Public Health Foundation of India, is that India’s “massive underreporting of cases” has contributed to the disease’s spread. Experts from around the world said that India’s failure to construct an adequate dengue surveillance system has impeded awareness of the illness’s vast reach, discouraged efforts to clean up the sources of the disease and slowed the search for a vaccine.
This affects everyone in the world because there a huge volume of international travel, including for business and tourism.
“I would say that anybody over the age of 20 in India has been infected with dengue,” said Dr. Timothy Endy, chief of infectious disease at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.
For those who arrive in India as adults, “you have a reasonable expectation of getting dengue after a few months,” said Dr. Joseph M. Vinetz, a professor at the University of California at San Diego. “If you stay for a longer period, it’s a certainty.”

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Victories for Women's Rights in the US Election

As I write this, the US Presidential Election is projected to have gone to President Obama, and two key Senate races have been decided in favor of women's rights. Both Todd Akin of  Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana have lost their bids to become US Senator in their respective states. Both of them had come out against a woman's right to abortion even in the case of rape. While that position was consistent with the Republican National Platform, as I have noted before, it is not consistent with the views of a majority of Americans.

It appears that the election hinged on the changing demographics of America. Gov. Romney led among white men, but that group is a declining fraction of the American population. Indeed, Steve Schmidt, former campaign strategist for Republican candidate John McCain and now a commentator on MSNBC, believes that the Republican Party will have to adapt to the changing demographics, which include an increasing fraction of Latinos and Asians (especially the former), or the party will become irrelevant, as he believes has happened in California.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Is Low Fertility Destroying Our Civilization?

My thanks to Duane Miller for pointing me to an article by Jonathan V. Last of the Weekly Standard, who worries that low fertility in America is "undermining our civilization." Last's analysis starts with data from the 2010 Current Population Survey (he refers to the data as coming from CDC, but links us to the Census data) which show that among women 40-44 (who for the most part are at the end of their childbearing), 18.8 percent are childless and 18.5 percent have only one child. He then concludes that since nearly 40 percent of women are having no children or only one child we are "slowly bifurcating into a society where we have two classes of adults: parents and non-parents." This is, of course, a bit on the sensational side since I can guarantee you that having one child still makes you a parent! Furthermore, the increase in childlessness has been very gradual. As far back as 1994, for example, the Current Population Survey showed that 17.5 percent of women aged 40-44 were childless and 17.1 had only one child. He continues to lament about low fertility in the US, blaming it first on old-age entitlements:
The economic school says that macroeconomic changes in American life have made having babies less important. As we moved from agriculture to industry, from rural life to urban life, children became both less helpful and more expensive. What's more, the advent of Social Security and then Medicare inserted the government into family life by giving the state responsibilities for taking of the elderly that children once bore.
What the entitlement state meant was that for the first time in history, people didn't need children to care for them in their old age. The government would do it. Socializing this cost created a market distortion. Children are expensive to raise and everybody gets the government's geezer goodies, whether they pay for the cost of creating new taxpayers or not. So only the suckers have kids.
The idea that people have children in order to be cared for in old age is largely nonsense. Social Security was put in place partly to get older people out of the labor market in the Depression but very importantly to deal with the fact that the poverty rate was very high among the elderly--children were not taking care of their parents, no matter what Last may believe was going on back then. Most people understand that saving for your own old age is a lot less expensive than raising a child. At the same time, it is almost certainly the case that economic development and urbanization in this country led to a steep rise in the opportunity costs of children, leading young people to seek ways to gain more control over their reproduction. This latter set of issues is what Last refers to as "cultural explanations."
What happened beginning in 1970 was a massive change in American culture. Just to tick off a few of the most obvious changes: abortion, contraception, marriage, divorce, and religious practice. Each of these subjects underwent titanic shifts beginning in or about 1970. And as our relationship to them changed, so did our behavior with regards to family life.
It is my view that Last has this backwards. It was not that culture changed and then family behavior changed. Rather, the very forces that have led to decades of fertility decline in the US have created the demand for greater control over one's life--including choosing the number of children, when to get married, and when not to be married. Most people want neither the government nor the church telling them what to do in these matters. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Family Planning a Key to Bangladesh's Development

Bangladesh is one of the poorest and most crowded countries on earth. But this week's Economist argues that it is actually much better off than people expected--it is not a "basket case." They list four reasons for the better than expected development in Bangladesh. The first is the success of family planning.

If you leave aside city states, Bangladesh is the world’s most densely populated country. At independence, its leaders decided that they had to restrain further population growth (China’s one-child policy and India’s forced sterilisation both date from roughly the same time). Fortunately, Bangladesh’s new government lacked the power to be coercive. Instead, birth control was made free and government workers and volunteers fanned out across the country to distribute pills and advice. In 1975, 8% of women of child-bearing age were using contraception (or had partners who were); in 2010 the number was over 60%.
In 1975 the total fertility rate (the average number of children a woman can expect to have during her lifetime) was 6.3. In 1993 it was 3.4. After stalling, it resumed its fall in 2000. After one of the steepest declines in history the fertility rate is now just 2.3, slightly above the “replacement level” at which the population stabilises in the long term. When Bangladesh and Pakistan split in 1971, they each had a population of 65m or so. Bangladesh’s is now around 150m; Pakistan’s is almost 180m.
Because of this Bangladesh is about to reap a “demographic dividend”; the number of people entering adulthood will handsomely exceed the number of children being born, increasing the share of the total population that works.
This may be misplaced optimism on the part of the Economist. It is unlikely that fertility has dropped fast enough and low enough to have more than a modest impact (as opposed to a "handsome impact") on development. But it is better than the alternative, without question.

The second reason they mention is that the Green Revolution has kept rural families above water--in economic terms, if not always in hydrological terms. The third reason is the invention in Bangladesh of micro-credit, aimed largely at women. And the final reason, to which they accord the greatest weight, is the substantial role played in the country by NGOs. None of these other factors would matter, however, if fertility had not declined. Everything follows from that.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Remembering When Things Fell Apart

Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart," about the effects of the colonization of Nigeria in the late 19th and early 20th century, is a classic socio-historical novel and one that I (like many others!) regularly require my students to read. Achebe was himself personally involved in the Biafran War--the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s--and has recently published a new book about Biafra called "There Was a Country." Adam Nossiter has a review in the New York Times that is not overly kind (Nossiter thinks that Achebe is too sympathetic toward Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu, who led the rebellion that created a new nation of Biafra), but Nossiter does provide a very nice summary first of modern Nigeria:
Nigeria is the Texas of Africa: it’s big and loud and brash, a place of huge potential, untapped talent, murderous conflict and petroleum riches. It also has a singular capacity for irony and self-reflection that is both cultural habit and survival tactic. It is difficult and often dangerous to get by in Nigeria unless you are a fortunate member of the infinitesimally small and mostly corrupt oil-fed elite. Acute awareness of your surroundings is a necessity; along with it goes another Nigerian trait, thinking and dreaming big.
And then of the Biafran War and Achebe's role in that:
All these characteristics were in play when the nightmare for weak nation-states became reality in 1967. Seven years after Nigerian independence, the prosperous Ibos, dominant in the eastern part of the country and targets of persecution and pogroms, declared their independence. Led by the charismatic Oxford-educated, Shakespeare-loving Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu, the fledgling nation called itself the Republic of Biafra. Achebe, an Ibo himself and the new country’s pre-­eminent intellectual, a product of Nigeria’s finest ­English-style schools and author of “Things Fall Apart” — soon went to work at Biafra’s Ministry of Information, serving as special envoy and chairman of a committee charged with writing a constitution for the new country.
My view is that any book that reminds us of the history and the trajectory of Nigeria is important because of the country's already enormous size and high rate of population growth. It dominates the demography of Africa and certainly dominates the economy and politics of West Africa. The more we know, the better we will be able to cope.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

New Take on Chinese Emigration

An average of about 400,000 Chinese have emigrated to other countries each year over the past two decades, according to data from the UN Population Division. Today's New York Times offers up a new set of reasons for this phenomenon--middle class uncertainty about the future of China.
As China’s Communist Party prepares a momentous leadership change in early November, it is losing skilled professionals like Ms. Chen in record numbers. In 2010, the last year for which complete statistics are available, 508,000 Chinese left for the 34 developed countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That is a 45 percent increase over 2000.

Few emigrants from China cite politics, but it underlies many of their concerns. They talk about a development-at-all-costs strategy that has ruined the environment, as well as a deteriorating social and moral fabric that makes China feel like a chillier place than when they were growing up. Over all, there is a sense that despite all the gains in recent decades, China’s political and social trajectory is still highly uncertain.
“People who are middle class in China don’t feel secure for their future and especially for their children’s future,” said Cao Cong, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham who has studied Chinese migration. “They don’t think the political situation is stable.”
I have noted before the widespread concern that China might grow old before it grows rich, and this trend of middle class emigration, if it continues, will likely speed up that process.