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.

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Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Positive Spin on Global Changes

The United Nations new Sustainable Development Goals have ambitious aims and while I (and many others) have been critical of the low level of emphasis on population growth, Nicholas Kristof spent time in today's NYTimes reminding us of the positive things that have happened in developing nations over the past few decades. It is not war and disease all the time, although those things continue to threaten us, and we can't let our guard down. Nonetheless, we need to acknowledge the good stuff going on.
• The number of extremely poor people (defined as those earning less than $1 or $1.25 a day, depending on who’s counting) rose inexorably until the middle of the 20th century, then roughly stabilized for a few decades. Since the 1990s, the number of poor has plummeted.
• In 1990, more than 12 million children died before the age of 5; this toll has since dropped by more than half.
• More kids than ever are becoming educated, especially girls. In the 1980s, only half of girls in developing countries completed elementary school; now, 80 percent do.
But Kristof ends on what I think is a false premise:
There’s one last false argument to puncture. Cynics argue that saving lives is pointless, because the result is overpopulation that leads more to starve. Not true. Part of this wave of progress is a stunning drop in birthrates.
Haitian women now average 3.1 children; in 1985, they had six. In Bangladesh, women now average 2.2 children. Indonesians, 2.3. When the poor know that their children will survive, when they educate their daughters, when they access family planning, they have fewer children.
I personally do not know anyone who thinks that saving lives is pointless. The point is that as we save lives we must spend equal effort making sure that women are having children at the same rate as is consistent with the declining death rate. We demographers call this the net reproduction rate (NRR)--the number of girl children a woman has that will survive to reproductive age. Historically the NRR has been very close to one. As mortality has dropped, the NRR has risen well above one, and that is why we have more than seven billion people now, when there were "only" one billion people a scant two centuries ago. We can't emphasize enough that it is much easier to get people to reduce the death rate (we'll set aside the anti-vacccinators for the time being!!) than it is get people to limit fertility.

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