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:

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Racism and Xenophobia in Italy

Italy's first ever black cabinet member is Cécile Kyenge, an immigrant from the Congo who earned her doctorate in opthalmology in Italy and married an Italian citizen. On the surface it would seem like her appointment to the cabinet would be a sign of racial tolerance in Italy. Apparently not. This week's Economist reports on the attacks that she has suffered, but it seems that the story is not one simply about race. The animosity is aimed at her priority as Minister of Integration:
to make citizenship dependent on birth, not blood ties to Italy. That would make it easier for the children of immigrants to acquire citizenship.
The Northern League opposition party is not happy about this and is attempting to block it.
The row has exposed the hollowness of the League’s claim that it is not xenophobic, only against illegal immigrants. It would be hard to find a shinier success story than Ms Kyenge’s. She entered Italy legally in 1983 to study medicine (though she lived illegally in the country for about a year after a university scholarship she had been led to expect failed to materialise). In 1994, she married an Italian engineer and became a citizen. 
The shameful treatment of the country’s first black minister, and the limited condemnation of it, not only hurts Italy’s image. It also jars with Italians’ widespread belief that they are free of racism. Using data from 2005-07, the World Values Survey found 11.1% of Italians saying they did not want neighbours of a different race, against 4.9% in Britain. Even among Spaniards, who have had a similar experience of rapid, recent and largely unauthorised immigration, the proportion was 6.9%. Ms Kyenge has a tough job ahead of her, in every sense.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Are You Having a Healthy and Sustainable Meal Today?

You may recall that the United Nations Population Division recently upped the size of its medium population forecast, suggesting that we may hit 10 billion if things continue as they are. The problem of feeding this number of people in a healthy and sustainable way is clearly a huge item on the global agenda. As we push for higher yields per acre and implement the kinds of changes that helped the food supply so far keep pace with population growth, we are confronted by the fact that having food is not necessarily the same as having healthy food. In the past few decades the western diet of more processed foods and more meat has gone hand-in-hand with higher levels of obesity and hypertension. just brought my attention to a new online magazine by the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (yes, the pasta people) that has a lot of interesting reading--far too much too summarize. You have to go read it for yourself. In particular, Foodtank's co-founder, Ellen Gustafson, has an article in which she asks some important questions:
- Is yield the most important value of our agricultural output, or should we be measuring other things, like nutrition or community health? 
- If we want a healthy population, what foods should we be focused on growing to feed people?

- How can we ensure that we are growing food for people today, but also setting up our grandchildren for food security tomorrow?
Some of the healthiest foods are those that are indigenous to different regions of the world and have been staples in the diets of peasants for hundreds or thousands of years. Now, the high mortality among these people traditionally might lull us into the belief that they didn't have a good diet. But it appears that they died from communicable disease despite having a good diet. We know how to control most communicable diseases, so if we can add a good diet back on top of that, we should be healthier down the road. has a list of some of these, and before you say "Oh, these will never catch on" think about the way in which the quinoa of the Incas has all of a sudden become world famous.  

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Mapping the Latino Population

Pew Hispanic Research Center has over the years become the go-to place for demographic information about Latinos in the US, and today they hit another home run with a set of maps allowing you to visualize what's happening with Latinos. There is a report to accompany the maps which reminds us why these maps are important:
Latinos are the nation’s largest minority group and among its fastest growing populations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2013), the Latino population in 2012 was 53 million, making up 17% of the U.S. population. Latino population growth between 2000 and 2010 accounted for more than half of the nation’s population growth.
Latinos are the nation’s largest minority group and among its fastest growing populations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2013), the Latino population in 2012 was 53 million, making up 17% of the U.S. population.1 Latino population growth between 2000 and 2010 accounted for more than half of the nation’s population growth.
Half (52%) of those counties are in three states—California, Texas and Florida. Along with Arizona, New Mexico, New York, New Jersey and Illinois, these eight states contain three-quarters (74%) of the nation’s Latino population. But with the dispersal of the U.S. Latino population across the country, this share too is down from 79% in 2000 and 84% in 1990.
The map and accompanying table of metro areas is especially interesting, so that you can put your own area into context. Since I live in San Diego, contiguous to the US-Mexico border, you might expect that we would be among the very highest in terms of the Latino population, but in fact we are #11 on the list, with cities like New York and Chicago ahead of us.  

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How is the Dream Fifty Years Later?

Today is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in which Martin Luther King gave his famous "I have a dream" speech. This was a turning point in race relations in the US, but "race" is such an unfortunately volatile topic that we need to keep track of progress. Figure 10.5 in the 11th edition of my text shows the gap in family income of Whites and Blacks in the US since data were first collected by the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey in 1947. From 1947 to the early 1960s, black family income hovered around 55 percent of white family income. In the mid-1960s the ratio jumped up to nearly 70 percent, but it has since slipped back down to 63 percent, according to data from the 2011 Current Population Survey (the latest available data). This means that since Martin Luther King's speech and the changes that came along with the Civil Rights Movement, the income of the average black family has risen slightly faster than white family income, but the gap in absolute income has actually widened and, importantly, there has not been much improvement lately.

Some of the gap is due to the different family structures between whites and blacks, as conservative pundits such as Bill O'Reilly have been pushing. While it is true that a higher fraction of black than white families are headed by females (pushing down income because there is only one earner and she is likely to earn less than a male), even among married-couple households, black families are earning only 86 percent of what white families earn. Education, as always, is a good predictor of income, and for both black and white families we can see that the more educated is the head of household, the higher is the income, yet the income gap exists at every educational level. The gap is greatest among those with less than a high school diploma--where blacks earn only 60 percent of what whites earn. But even for those holding a doctorate, blacks are earning only 89 percent of what whites make. An improvement, to be sure, but still a gap. What explains the gap? In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it seems reasonable to conclude that discrimination is the causal factor. There is still work to do here.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

How Important Are Vaccinations? Ask a Church in Texas

Among the many tools that science has developed to combat disease, vaccinations are among the most powerful, because they essentially train your body to resist a particular disease. Yet, the success of vaccinations seems to have lulled a lot of people to sleep about their importance, and some of those people go so far as to believe that the vaccination does more harm than good. Today NBC News reported on what amounts to a field experiment in this idea. More than 20 members of a mega church in Texas recently contracted measles and apparently 16 of them had not been immunized against the disease. It appears that a visitor to the church from another country was the carrier--bringing the disease into an unprotected population. According to a more detailed story on MSNBC, this is a church in which the pastor preaches out against vaccinations. Perhaps most startling is that a local physician interviewed by NBC indicated that fear of "contracting" autism from the vaccination was a major reason given for avoiding the shot--even though there is absolutely not a shred of evidence to connect the two. The Enlightenment brought us the kind of science that has led to the control of disease, but we seem not to be all equally enlightened.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Education is the Key to Better Health

The Enlightenment, as a movement embracing science, discovery, and critical thinking, has changed everything when it comes to our understanding of causes of poor health and death. But this works at the individual level, as well. The more educated you are, the more enlightened you are likely to be, and the longer you are likely to live. This message came out loudly and clearly in a just-released Population Bulletin from the Population Reference Bureau, titled "The Effect of Educational Attainment on Adult Mortality in the United States." The results were actually rolled out in a PRB webinar last month, but you can download the full story, written by Robert Hummer and Elaine Hernandez, on the PRB website. Here are a couple of my favorite quotes:
Sociologists who have researched socioeconomic status and health even note that “education creates most of the associa- tion between higher socioeconomic status and better health because education is a root cause of good health.”23 Fur- thermore, educational attainment does not simply influence mortality through the other dimensions of socioeconomic status; it influences many other aspects of the life course as well, including health-related behavior, access to health care, cognitive functioning, and the development of social and psychological resources.
Building on the idea that education—and other measures of socioeconomic status— is a root cause of good health, Bruce Link and Jo Phelan have developed “fundamental cause theory” to explain the enduring impact of educational attainment on health and longevity. They propose that educational attain- ment is a root or primary cause of health and longevity because it affects multiple diseases, works through multiple mechanisms to influence health and longevity, serves as a resource that can be used to avoid health risks or lessen the impacts of disease, and continues to influence health and longevity even when the mechanisms linking education to health and longevity change. Lending support to this idea, Richard Miech and colleagues recently showed that educational differences in adult mortality widened over the past 10 years largely because educational attainment was so strongly associated with causes of death that became more prevalent in U.S. society over this time period.
This last point is important because the economic divide is widening in the US, and it appears that the educational divide, and thus the mortality divide, is also widening.

Hummer and Hernandez also review the evidence for the role of genetics in death rates and conclude that most data suggest that education is a far stronger predictor of mortality than genetics (indeed, education is a strong predictor of all things demographic!), but they also note that this is an area that could use more research. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Food or Water for India's Children--Does it Have to be a Choice?

India will likely surpass China as the earth's most population nation by 2030, according to the latest UN Population Division projections. India has a higher fertility rate than China (almost one child per woman more), but this is partially offset by the much higher rate of infant and childhood mortality in India than in China. The high death rates are broadly indicative of poor health among the children who remain alive. One aspect of poor health is malnutrition and this week's Economist reports on a new politically-motivated scheme to get cheap food into the hands of more of India's residents. 
The scheme aims to reach 800m of India’s 1.2 billion people, giving each a monthly dole of 5 kilos of rice or wheat, at a nominal price. That makes it the world’s biggest serving of subsidised food.
But, is this the best way for India to spend its money if improved health is really the objective?
It would be better to deal with pitifully bad nutrition than plain hunger. Walk around any north Indian village where grain seems adequate, and stick-thin people offer evidence of how few nutrients are being absorbed. Roughly half of all children under five are malnourished. Save the Children, a British charity, said in June that over 60m children, aged five or younger, are stunted. The consequences can be grim: damage to young brains, a reduced capacity to learn, even death.
Yet helping children requires more than a supply of base calories. A lack of protein or vitamins in diet, dirty water, neglect of girls, lack of education on hygiene and ill-nourished mothers who get pregnant too often: all contribute to the problem. Arvind Virmani, a prominent economist, argues that cleaning up water supplies, especially by building sewage systems, would do far more good against malnutrition than doling out more grain. Just a simple hand-washing campaign could be of huge help.
On the face of it, you can hardly argue with the notion of getting hot lunches to children who would otherwise not have one, but a more well-rounded and potentially even less costly set of other health policies initiatives should also be on the table when billions of dollars are going to spent, as will be the case with the proposed food program.

Friday, August 23, 2013

How is China Coping With an Aging Population?

There is widespread sentiment globally that China is likely to grow old before it grows rich, as I have mentioned before. China's increasing presence on the world's geopolitical stage makes this an important issue, and a recent analysis by Statfor Global Intelligence takes a very sober look at it.
Two reports in Chinese media highlight different aspects of China's unfolding demographic crunch. The Ministry of Education reported Aug. 21 that more than 13,600 primary schools closed nationwide in 2012. The ministry looked to China's dramatically shifting demographic profile to explain the widespread closures, noting that between 2011 and 2012 the number of students in primary and secondary schools fell from nearly 150 million to 145 million. It also confirmed that between 2002 and 2012, the number of students enrolled in primary schools dropped by nearly 20 percent. The ministry's report comes one day after an article in People's Daily, the government newspaper, warned of China's impending social security crisis as the number of elderly is expected to rise from 194 million in 2012 to 300 million by 2025.
There have been many people arguing that the One-Child Policy needs to be rescinded in order to boost the Chinese birth rate and thus avoid a demographically-inspired collapse of the Chinese economy. But Statfor notes that a rise in the birth rate seems unlikely.
But even sweeping adjustments to the one-child policy or the national retirement age would create only temporary and partial buffers to the problem of demographic change. It is no longer clear that the one-child policy has any appreciable impact on population growth in China. China's low fertility rate (1.4 children per mother, compared with an average of 1.7 in developed countries and 2.0 in the United States) is at least as much a reflection of urban couples' struggles to cope with the rapidly rising cost of living and education in many Chinese cities as it is of draconian enforcement of the policy.
The article also notes that the Chinese government has proposed raising the national retirement age from 55 to 60 for women and from 60 to 65 for men. This is, in my opinion, a necessary move, and while the article correctly notes that this only delays the inevitable, it does at least delay it, offering more time for longer term solutions, if they exist, to come into play.
The crux of China's demographic challenge lies in the fact that, unlike Japan, South Korea, the United States and Western European countries, China's population will grow old before the majority of it is anywhere near middle-income status, let alone rich. This is historically unprecedented, and its implications are made all the more unpredictable by its coinciding with the Chinese economy's forced shift away from an economic model grounded in the exploitation of inexhaustibly cheap labor toward one in which young Chinese will be expected to sustain the country's economic life as workers and as consumers. A temporary reprieve from the demographic crisis will be difficult but possible with reform, but a long-term solution is far out of reach.
This is a set of comments worth contemplating, because what happens in China is unlikely to stay in China.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Can We Fix the US Census Race Categories?

I have commented often about the absurdity of racial categories in census and other documents, while at the same time noting that we cannot just stop asking some type of question because we still need to monitor progress on discrimination. The issue was discussed very eloquently today in an Op-Ed in the New York Times by a former director of the Census Bureau--Kenneth Prewitt, now a professor at Columbia University. First, some history:
STARTING in 1790, and every 10 years since, the census has sorted the American population into distinct racial groups. Remarkably, a discredited relic of 18th-century science, the “five races of mankind,” lives on in the 21st century. Today, the census calls these five races white; black; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.
The nation’s founders put a hierarchical racial classification to political use: its premise of white supremacy justified, among other things, enslaving Africans, violent removal of Native Americans from their land, the colonization of Caribbean and Pacific islands, Jim Crow subjugation and the importation of cheap labor from China and Mexico.
But the demographic revolution since the immigration overhaul of 1965 has pushed the outdated (and politically constructed) notion of race to the breaking point. In June the Supreme Court struck down a core provision of the Voting Rights Act, taking note of changing demographics. I disagree with the court’s ruling, but agree that society is changing. And our statistics must reflect those changes.
And then a prescription for change:
I URGE three actions. First, drop the current race questions, which misleadingly conflate race and nationality, and ask two new questions: one based on a streamlined version of today’s ethnic and racial categories, and a separate, comprehensive nationality question.
Second, add parental place of birth to the census. One-fourth of Americans under the age of 18 are children of immigrants — a proportion that will increase sharply over the next quarter-century.
Third, slowly phase in the use of the data to make policy. Americans may hope for a colorblind future, but we know that the legacy of discrimination continues to haunt us; that some new immigrants are assimilated even as others are left behind; that new versions of racism crop up, within as well as among the five “races.”
With any luck these ideas will resonate within and beyond the Census Bureau, allowing us to start collecting data that are more realistic and more informative about the nation's demographics.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Overshoot Day

The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) has declared today to be Earth Overshoot Day--the day in the year when we humans have used up the renewable resources that the earth has available to us for the entire year.
We are now operating in overdraft. For the rest of the year, we will maintain our ecological deficit by drawing down local resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Just as a bank statement tracks income against expenditures, Global Footprint Network measures humanity’s demand for and supply of natural resources and ecological services. And the data is sobering. Global Footprint Network estimates that in approximately eight months, we demand more renewable resources and C02 sequestration than what the planet can provide for an entire year.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this was also the day in which the draft of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was leaked to the press. The results, as reported in the New York Times, should not surprise you:
An international panel of scientists has found with near certainty that human activity is the cause of most of the temperature increases of recent decades, and warns that sea levels could conceivably rise by more than three feet by the end of the century if emissions continue at a runaway pace. 
The scientists, whose findings are reported in a draft summary of the next big United Nations climate report, largely dismiss a recent slowdown in the pace of warming, which is often cited by climate change doubters, attributing it most likely to short-term factors.
I personally like the metaphor of having jumped off a building and thinking that we're far, so good, eh...?

Monday, August 19, 2013

New Wave of Refugees Reminds Us That Syria is Still a Mess

The seemingly senseless killing of Egyptian citizens by the military (which makes the change in government look ever more like a military coup of the old traditional kind) has taken attention away from the mess in Syria. However, BBC News today reports on a new wave of refugees into Iraq (yes, into Iraq instead of out of Iraq).
Thousands of refugees from Syria are pouring over the border into Iraqi Kurdistan, the UN refugee agency says.
Up to 10,000 crossed at Peshkhabour on Saturday, bringing the total influx since Thursday to 20,000. The UN says the reasons are not fully clear.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says this is one of the biggest single waves of refugees it has had to deal with since the uprising against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.
Some 150,000 Syrian refugees are already registered in Iraq, of the nearly two million said to have fled Syria in total since the uprising began.
The proximate reason seems to have been that someone (the story does not say who) built a pontoon bridge over the Tigris River separating Syria from Iraq in the northeast corner of Syria. People want to get out of Syria and it seems that all of a sudden they had a way to do it. This seems to make as much sense as anything associated with the two and a half year disintegration of Syria.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Are You a Demographist?

Although I have read all of Dan Brown's novels, including the heavily-panned (yet still highly successful) "The Lost Symbol," I have been distracted and was not paying close attention to his latest novel, "Inferno", which came out three months ago. For some reason, no one bothered to tell me that the plot line revolves around a population theme:
In a standard Dan Brown 24-hour time limit, Langdon with his beautiful side-kick races to find a weapon of mass destruction created by a mad scientist as a solution to over-population in the world that is threatening the human species with extinction. This weapon is created to cut down a major chunk of the human population. Here, we see dark and twisted reflections of the neo-Malthusian theory at work.
Now, I suspect that this population angst is not really central to the action in the book, and since I just bought the book I haven't found out yet for sure (you can offer a spoiler alert, if you want). What I did discover is that Dan Brown introduces the topic of over-population by referring on page 144  to "a prominent nineteenth century mathematician and demographist name Thomas Robert Malthus." Technically, Malthus did take his degree from Jesus College at Cambridge in mathematics, but his biographers (most notably William Petersen) have made it clear that he aspired to, and became, a parish priest in the Church of England. To call him a mathematician is a bit of stretch. Indeed, eventually (years after the publication of his Essay on Population) he became a Professor of Political Economy, not a Professor of Mathematics. But a demographist??? What is that about? A Google search returned a few on-line dictionaries that define a demographist as, duh, a demographer. But I could not find a single reference to Malthus that called him a demographist. This was new (as in novel) to me, but I guess that I can now add a new title to myself as a demographist. If Dan Brown says so, it must be.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Racism Rears its Head in Mexico

My son, Greg Weeks, commented in his blog today about an NBCLatino story describing a situation in Mexico in which a casting call for an Aeroméxico ad explicitly said "no dark-skinned people."
Within 24 hours of the picture being shared online, both the ad agency behind the casting call and Aeroméxico had tweeted out statements of apologies. You know, the same standard, “It was never our intent. We love people of all races, etc. etc.” public relations copy.
The author of the NBCLatino op-ed piece, Julio Ricardo Varela, also noted that:
As a child growing up with Spanish-language television, light skin was always the norm, whether it was a channel in San Juan or in El Bronx. Even to this day, I cannot get past the subtle institutional race-based society that has become the accepted way in so many parts of the region. It is even part of our language. Imagine if people started using words like “blackie” and “blondie” as English terms of endearment? I see it all the time when I go home to Puerto Rico, and I am just one of many who can speak to this ugly secret.
An excellent academic paper on this very topic is the one by Mara Loveman and Jeronimo Muniz (both the University of Wisconsin, Madison), "How Puerto Rico Became White: Boundary Dynamics and Intercensus Racial Reclassification, " American Sociological Review, 72(917-939), 2007.

Since racial/ethnic definitions are artificial and arbitrary, we usually figure this out by asking people. As I note in Chapter 4, Mexico is predominantly mestizo (mixed Amerindian and European), and the only question on the census about ethnicity relates to speaking an indigenous language or identifying as a member of an indigenous group. Data from the 2010 Census of Mexico show that less than 7 percent of the population aged 3 or older speaks an indigenous language, while 15 percent of the population report themselves to be indigenous. So, if we want to know how many "whites" there are, where do we go? It turns out that the CIA Factbook has an answer (9 percent), albeit without a source given, and since they also think that 30 percent of the population is Amerindian, instead of the self-reported 15 percent, I think the safe answer is that we don't know what percent of the Mexican population would consider themselves to be "white." And that's OK.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Mapping Language in the US

Emily Badger of has been paying close attention to the Census Bureau website and earlier this month the Bureau introduced yet another dot density map (called the Language Mapper Tool), this one showing where people live who speak something other than English at home. These data come, of course, from the American Community Survey, so the spatial resolution is not quite as good as the 100 percent long-form data, but the detail is still pretty amazing. As of 2011, one out of five households had people who speak a language other than English at home--a reflection of the tremendous amount of migration into the country. Not too surprisingly, Spanish leads the list, accounting for about two-thirds of the non-English speakers. Indeed, that pretty much fills up the screen in southern California. Pretty much, but not entirely, of course. One of the maps, for example, shows the distribution of people speaking Persian, and Badger focuses on Los Angeles, reminding me of the book published a number of years ago by the University of California Press titled "Irangeles." 

Sadly, this is not likely the kind of map set that will be useful in the ongoing Congressional debate about immigration reform, which faced a bit of a setback today among Republicans, as my son, Greg Weeks, has noted.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Visualizing Residential Segregation in the US

A few months ago I commented on a truly amazing dot-density map of the US, in which you can practically pick out your own house in the context of population density around you. Now comes yet another amazing dot density map, building on that previous one, with the twist that this map colors the dots differently according to the race/ethnicity of the population. Dustin Cable of the University of Virginia did the map, while Emily Badger of TheAtlanticCities did the story:
Demographic researcher Dustin Cable's Racial Dot Map is staggering both visually and statistically. From afar, the most racially diverse pockets of the United States appear like blended watercolors in shades of purple and teal. Zoom all the way in, though, and each dot represents a single person, all 308,745,538 of us.
The data behind the map comes from the 2010 census, available publicly through the National Historical Geographic Information System. Cable, a researcher with the the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, has modeled the project on a previous MIT map plotting population density by individual dots. Cable's version color-codes the results by race and ethnicity, producing an eerily beautiful picture of American segregation (and, less frequently, integration) that tricks the eye at different scales.
Of course, there is sadly nothing beautiful about American segregation and the maps serve to remind us of its continued existence. Audrey Kobayashi, Professor of Geography at Queens University in Canada and Past President of the Association of American Geographers discussed this issue last year in one of her presidential columns.
Many studies have shown that it is easier to celebrate diversity than to address racism, but that the result of the former is often to make non-racialized people feel virtuous without necessarily understanding or developing ways to combat the effects of racialization. The concept of diversity is therefore easily co-opted by neoliberal regimes that market and commodify ethnic difference, celebrate self-help and entrepreneurial projects, and distance the state or institution from responsibility to effect social change.
We can't let ourselves complacently believe that accepting diversity is the same as reducing racism, and a map like the racial dot map helps us visualize where the problems might be the biggest and where real action is needed.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Solving the African Water Problem One Sachet at a Time

West Africa is a region of the world that has rainfall and relatively abundant supplies of fresh water, but generally lacks the infrastructure to get clean water to residents, especially in the cities. So, entrepreneurs have stepped in with a local solution--package processed (hopefully!) water into plastic sleeves (called "sachets") and sell them on the street as "PURE water" for a low price. Justin Stoler of the University of Miami has been studying and publishing about this phenomenon and his work was recently featured in a blog post on the Rockefeller Foundation supported website.
So ubiquitous is pure water in Accra that it wasn’t until I spoke with Justin Stoler, a University of Miami researcher who studies sachet water, that I realized how recent a phenomenon it is, and how significant. The rise of sachet water has created a huge urban economy, its very own black market, an environmental disaster and a private-sector-driven public health coup.
Only two water treatment plants supply the entire city, and the Accra Metropolitan Authority has not been able to install new water connections nearly fast enough to keep up with rapid population growth. The Ghana Water Company, Ltd. can only produce enough water at any given time to fill about half of Accra’s pipe network, according to Stoler’s research.
So the public has turned to the private sector for their water. As recently as the mid 1990s, vendors sold drinking water by the cup or in plastic bags that were tied up individually at the point of sale. In the late ’90s, though, a small innovation changed everything: Someone started filling plastic sleeves of treated water and heat-sealing them, creating water-to-go on demand.
Quickly, Stoler says, the industry exploded. The big bottled water companies started manufacturing sachet water, and a cottage industry grew up around sachet water production. Individuals and small companies started packaging water, most of which was simply siphoned out of regular taps. And a supply chain grew around it: Truck and cart drivers distribute the water to every corner of the city. The “job” of the informal pure-water street vendor was born.
As so often happens in life, no good deed goes unpunished, and the side effect of the sachets is a growing environmental problem as the empty sleeves wind up in gutters and elsewhere they don't belong.
Every year, a ban on plastic bags, which would include the sachets, is floated. But the consequences of such a move could be severe. “Water access for a significant number of urban poor would be severely marginalized if the government banned sachets as part of a larger ban on plastic bags,” writes Stoler and his colleagues in one study.
There have a been a few entrepreneurial attempts to deal with the problem, but for the most part this is a side-effect that will apparently have to get a lot worse before the public is willing to deal with it.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Germany is Having a Tough Time Adapting to its Demographics

Over the years I have commented often about the demographic situation in Germany. It has had a fertility rate well below replacement level since the 1970s, and it is been very reluctant to replace its own children with those of immigrants. Germany's modest baby boom in the 1950s and 1960s meant that its age structure carried it along for quite awhile  despite low fertility and lengthening life. But as I recently noted, the 2011 census enumerated fewer people than expected, and the New York Times took up the issue today in a story with a bit of an ominous tone to it.
Demographers say a similar future awaits other European countries, and the issue grows more pressing every day as Europe’s seemingly endless economic troubles accelerate the decline. But bogged down with failed banks and dwindling budgets, few are in any position to do anything about it.
Germany, however, an island of prosperity, is spending heavily to find ways out of the doom-and-gloom predictions, and it would seem ideally placed to show the Continent the way. So far, though, even while spending $265 billion a year on family subsidies, Germany has proved only how hard it can be. That is in part because the solution lies in remaking values, customs and attitudes in a country that has a troubled history with accepting immigrants and where working women with children are still tagged with the label “raven mothers,” implying neglectfulness.
As I discuss in Chapter 10, demographers have long known what kinds of policies need to be implemented, but it seems that Germans are not yet inclined to face reality and adapt to the changing demographics.
Demographers say that a far better investment would be to support women juggling motherhood and careers by expanding day care and after-school programs. They say recent data show that growth in fertility is more likely to come from them.
“If you look closely at the numbers, what you see is the higher the gender equality, the higher the birthrate,” said Reiner Klingholz of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.
But undoing years of subsidies for traditional households is difficult. “Touching those is political suicide,” said Michaela Kreyenfeld of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany.
Evolutionary theory would suggest that you adapt or die. The difference is that, contrary to other species, we actually have a choice in the matter. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Oh No! Yet Another Cause of Death for Africa to Worry About

Death rates seemed to be generally declining in sub-Saharan Africa until HIV/AIDS burst onto the scene in the 1980s, killing millions of adults, creating millions of orphans, and dramatically rearranging the sub-continent's demography. Since then Africa has also also become victim of "rich country" diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, as our own research has demonstrated. A new report from the World Bank adds yet another woe to this list--road traffic injuries. The Guardian covered the story.
Road traffic deaths in sub-Saharan Africa are predicted to rise by 80% by 2020, according to a World Bank report, which found the region to have the highest number of accidents, but the fewest vehicles on the road.
An estimated 24.1 people per 100,000 are killed in traffic accidents every year, according to the bank. Younger and poorer people are disproportionately vulnerable: accidents on the road are expected to become the biggest killer of children between five and 15 by 2015, outstripping malaria and Aids.
"The poorest communities often live alongside the fastest roads, their children may need to negotiate the most dangerous routes to school and they may have poorer outcomes from injuries, due to limited access to post-crash emergency healthcare," the report says.
For a long time the concern in Africa has focused on reducing mortality among children from communicable disease as well as malaria, but now the concern has to spread to other causes of death among children, and the rising health risks among adults--a "triple burden" as the the report notes. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Stand Up! It's Good for Your Health

As economies modernize and societies urbanize, people become more sedentary. While economic development and living in urban places almost inevitably lowers your risk of death these days, they may not lower your risk of poor health which, all things considered, might lead you personally to die sooner than you otherwise might expect. Being sedentary is, in particular, bad for us. But the good news is that combatting this may not require that you spend hours in the gym each week. Something as simple as standing up and moving about on a regular basis throughout the day may do the trick. This is the message from a paper published last year by Emma Wilmot and a group of researchers at the University of Leicester and Loughborough University in the UK. It is not clear why the Economist sat on the story until this week (no pun intended), but this will help to get the word out.
A series of epidemiological studies, none big enough to be probative, but all pointing in the same direction, persuaded Emma Wilmot of the University of Leicester, in Britain, to carry out a meta-analysis. This is a technique that combines diverse studies in a statistically meaningful way. Dr Wilmot combined 18 of them, covering almost 800,000 people, in 2012 and concluded that those individuals who are least active in their normal daily lives are twice as likely to develop diabetes as those who are most active. She also found that the immobile are twice as likely to die from a heart attack and two-and-a-half times as likely to suffer cardiovascular disease as the most ambulatory. Crucially, all this seemed independent of the amount of vigorous, gym-style exercise that volunteers did.
Correlation is not, of course, causation. But there is other evidence suggesting inactivity really is to blame for these problems. One exhibit is the finding that sitting down and attending to a task—anything from watching television to playing video games to reading—serves to increase the amount of calories people eat without increasing the quantity that they burn. Why that should be is unclear—as is whether low-level exercise like standing would deal with the snacking.
To be sure, the science is not complete on this issue, but this is a prescription that is pretty easy to swallow, and it probably behooves us all to keep in mind the old US football cheer: "stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight." It might be the fight of our lives. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Meccas for the Childfree (updated)

It is probably a sign of a low fertility society (even if not below replacement level) that a real estate blog (Estately) has just created its list of the 14 most childfree (importantly, as I note below, they use the word "childfree")-friendly cities in the US. San Francisco heads the list, and I doubt that would be a surprise in anyone's book. But Seattle was second, and the local media picked up on the way the blog had made fun of the city:
"Sure, Seattle has a reputation as a socially frigid city inhabited by nerds not known for their breeding prowess, but research indicates that’s not why the population is only 15.4 percent children,” the blog said, attributing the low birthrate instead to the “high number of affluent and educated professional men and women” who tend to have fewer babies.
While Seattleites may not be inclined to form large families, it turns out we have plenty of room for dogs. Estately said Seattle, with “more mutts than children," is the third best U.S. city for pooches.
The District of Columbia was third on the list, and this too made the local news:
But do the facts on the ground really make support the notion that D.C. is a hub for couples without kids?
There does appear to be some truth to the claim. Just 17.3 percent of District residents are under the age of 18, according to the most recent Census data. That's a full 6.1 percentage points below the national average.
Estately's list isn't just based on the raw number of children, however. It also includes nightlife, restaurants, travel options, and other adult-oriented activities that would attract the childless to the area. The blog cites a number of factors for D.C.'s prominence, including the District's high level of educational attainment and large population of career professionals.
Keep in mind three things as you contemplate these lists (which are fun, but we probably don't want to take them too seriously): (1) the results are for the population within specific city limits and San Francisco and DC, in particular, are surrounded by suburbs where children are likely to be more common; (2) not all people who are currently childless will necessarily stay that way and when they stop staying that way, they are apt to move to a place that is more child-friendly, thus distorting these demographic trends, and (3) a key caveat is that the cities are noted for being friendly to "childfree" people, not necessarily "childless" people. My wife and I have children and grandchildren, but we are "childfree" because none of them live with us.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Demographic Headwinds and Tailwinds

My thanks to Peyton Dobbins for pointing me to an article about the relationship between age structure change and the economy written not by demographers but by people who are professional investment advisors. It is a well-researched and well-written article and it is fun when people "see the light" and want to share that with others who might benefit, in this case financially, from demographic insight. The paper is "Demographic Changes, Financial Markets, and the Economy" by Robert D. Arnott and Denis B. Chaves, both of whom work for Research Affiliates in Newport Beach, CA. The paper was published in the Financial Analysts Journal in 2012. Their point is one that is familiar to readers of my book--age structures with a disproportionate share of people of working age are good for economic growth (economies with a demographic tailwind), and age structures with lots of kids or lots of older people are not so good (economies with a headwind). They summarize the situation nicely:
Children are not immediately helpful to GDP. They do not contribute to it, nor do they help stock and bond market returns in any meaningful way; their parents are likely disinvesting to pay their support. Young adults are the driving force in GDP growth; they are the sources of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. But they are not yet investing; they are overspending against their future human capital. Middle-aged adults are the engine for capital market returns; they are in their prime for income, savings, and investments. And senior citizens contribute to neither GDP growth nor stock and bond market returns; they disinvest to buy goods and services that they no longer produce.
To their credit, they don't offer investment advice on this simple age structure formula. The world is obviously more complex than this, but a country's age structure frames the kinds of policy and investment decisions that governments, private institutions, and private individuals are going to be making. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Chilean 2012 Census Data Called Into Question

A report out today from Chile indicates that an external commission reviewing the 2012 census in Chile has concluded that the results are not reliable, that they should not be used for public policy purposes, and that the census (at least an abbreviated version) should be retaken in 2015. The Commission, whose report (in Spanish) can be viewed here, concluded that there was an unacceptably high overall coverage error (undercount) of 9.3 percent of the population. And in one out of five census areas, the undercount was as high as 20 percent. As you might expect, there are calls for the resignation of the director of the INE (National Statistical Institute). Until new census data are collected, the commission recommended using population projections prepared for the country by CELADE--the Population Division of the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), which is housed in Santiago, Chile.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Grandparents Matter

Those of us who are grandparents are firm believers that we matter, but social scientists in general are only slowly catching on to that idea. Grandparents matter enough when it comes to childcare in the US that the American Community Survey asks a question about that. However, a paper just published in the American Sociological Review suggests that a child's life chances are influenced by grandparents in ways that have tended to be ignored in past research, although their research builds on theories developed by Robert Mare, a past president of the Population Association of America and published in Demography in 2011. The current paper is "The Grandparents Effect in Social Mobility: Evidence from British Birth Cohort Studies," by two British researchers, Tak Wing Chan and Vikki Boliver. The article is not available without a subscription, but the title and the abstract give a good flavor of the argument:
The net grandparents-grandchildren association can be summarized by a single uniform association parameter. Net of parents’ social class, the odds of grandchildren entering the professional-managerial class rather than the unskilled manual class are at least two and a half times better if the grandparents were themselves in professional-managerial rather than unskilled manual-class positions. This grandparents effect in social mobility persists even when parents’ education, income, and wealth are taken into account.
They do add the caveat that these study results might not hold for other societies, and of course there are a lot of things besides grandparental status that influences life chances. But you can't count grandparents out. And, as a parent, keep in mind that you are influencing not only the lives of your children, but of their children as well.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Love's Labour's Lost: Marriage (or not so much) in Korea

At the end of the Korean War in 1953 the average Korean woman was having 6.3 children. Today, it is down to 1.3--one of the lowest in the world. Korea is a classic case of a society becoming rapidly urban, well-educated and modern in economic terms, while remaining very traditional when it comes to the family. As in Japan (which ruled Korea from 1910-1945) women who marry are expected to take care of the children and the elders, both at the same time, leaving little time to maintain a career. Added to this dissonance in the speed of change in family values is the question of how do young people meet a suitable potential mate? This was the topic of a story in today's New York Times.
In a country where arranged courtships are fading into the past, the Ministry of Health and Welfare began promoting the idea of dating parties in 2010. Under the enthusiastic leadership of its minister at the time, Cheon Jae-hee, it held four parties that year that brought together its workers and employees at local corporations — making a splash in the news media. Ms. Cheon officiated at the wedding of the first couple who met at one. Featured in a magazine article before the wedding, the 31-year-old groom-to-be thanked the government profusely and wondered if two children would be enough to meet expectations.
Since then, sponsorship of the parties has shifted mainly to ministry affiliates and local governments, which can win financial rewards for activities that promote marriage and childbirth. The municipal government that threw the party Mr. Park attended has been named a role model by the city of Seoul. One government-financed agency, the Planned Population Federation of Korea, claims a different kind of victory: by hosting parties, it is working to undo its past success when it encouraged vasectomies as a booming South Korea feared being held back by population growth.
In truth, South Korea would have been held back by population growth. It's rapid decline in fertility created a classic demographic dividend which, combined with an increasingly educated population, has produced an economic miracle very similar to China's. But, just as China's young people do not seem too inclined to jump into marriage and raise the birth rate, neither do young Koreans.  In referring to these government-sponsored dating parties, a professor of sociology in Korea notes "that society has not been prepared for such a radical change."
“Approaching or socializing with someone you don’t know at all feels very unfamiliar to Koreans,” she said. “It is very awkward to mingle with someone without knowing who the other person’s parents are, where they are from, etc.”
This explanation reminded me distinctly of the cultural roots of xenophobia--a genuine fear of strangers.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Whither the American Family?

Charles Blow has a column in the New York Times that tries to put some context to the issue of minority--especially African American--families in the US, among whom a majority of children are born out-of-wedlock, despite surveys showing that vast majority of Americans of all racial/ethnic groups believe in marriage. But an important issue limiting the latter is, in Blow's estimation, the vastly higher rates of incarceration among black men.
In the two decades preceding the Great Recession, the American prison population nearly tripled, according to the Pew Center on the States. And make no mistake: mass incarceration rips at the fabric of families and whole communities.
Incarceration rates certainly cannot account for children being born out of wedlock, but it can help account for a lower than preferred overall rate of marriage.

Another, albeit related, perspective on the family came this week from the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.
In 2009, almost two-thirds (64.5%) of children lived with married parents. Although children living in married parent families may experience a wide range of family and household living arrangements, including residing with biological and stepparents, full, half or step siblings, or other related or unrelated household members. The traditional nuclear family consists of two married parents who are both biologically related to all children in the family, and no one else is living in their home. In other words, the child is only living with his or her married biological parents and full siblings. In 2009, half (50.8%) of children in the U.S. were living in a traditional nuclear family. We have witnessed a relatively modest 12% decline over a 13 year period. In 1996, 56% of children were in traditional nuclear families.
So, despite the increase in out-of-wedlock births among almost all groups in the US, it is still the case that nearly two out of three children are living with married parents, even if both parents are not biologically related. Since one of my own children is adopted, I'm not one who thinks that the biological relationship is the most important thing in the world, but having two parents is generally better than just one, for both economic and social reasons. Obviously, the more current or potential husbands/fathers who are in jail, the harder this is going to be.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Lesson About Hispanics From Birthdays in Texas

The Economist's "Lexington" has an interesting column in this week's Economist in which he draws some lessons about the future of America from the spread of the "quinceañera" (a girl's 15th birthday party--sort of a coming out in Mexican tradition) from Hispanics to Anglos. Among his observations is the important one about who in the world are Hispanics, anyways?
Strictly speaking, the Hispanic identity is a bureaucratic creation: the term appeared four decades ago as a box to tick on federal government forms. To this day it obscures the diversity of Americans from Spanish-speaking backgrounds (some of whom can barely speak Spanish). And yet, since that artificial birth, the Hispanic identity has taken on life, uniting the cultures of incomers from Mexico and Latin America to the Caribbean.
According to the Census Bureau, every day 200 Hispanic girls turn 15 in Texas. By the time today’s newborn Texans reach their quinceañeras, that number is projected to hit 300 a day (nationally, the numbers are roughly five times as large). According to a straw poll of party planners, a “normal” Texan quinceañera budget starts at $10,000. The custom is spreading. One of those polled, Eric Silva, says that more than a dozen Anglo, black and Indian-American families have asked for a quinceañerarather than a more typically American Sweet Sixteen party in the past two years—though Anglos don’t spend very much, he sniffs.
The cost of such parties is, like the cost of weddings these days, a bit of a mystery to me. Less mysterious were the origins of such parties, which put girls on display for potential suitors. Thankfully, teenage marriages and motherhood are receding among all ethnic groups in this country, as in Mexico as well.