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: john.weeks@sdsu.edu

Monday, May 7, 2018

Culture and Money are Part of Demography

Demographic research shows us very clearly that culture and money influence the way we organize our lives, and in turn affect underlying demographic trends such as the birth rate, death rate, and migration patterns--which in turn circle around to affect culture and money. I was inspired to point these things out by an Op-Ed in today's NYTimes by Andrew Cherlin, Professor of Sociology at The Johns Hopkins University, and a Past President of the Population Association of America, as I've mentioned before. He was weighing in on the ongoing question of how did it happen that Donald Trump was elected President? On what basis, for example, did white voters who had helped elect Barack Obama to the presidency, wind up then voting for Trump? Was it culture (a fear of "cultural displacement" that can lead to or exacerbate racism?) or was it economics (a feeling that lower-income white workers had been left behind by Democrats?). Professor Cherlin was very clear about his view of the matter--you can't separate these things:
The debate over why the white working class supported Mr. Trump raises a question: Why do we care so much about determining precisely how much political upheaval is due to economics and how much is due to culture?
Perhaps we are drawn to this futile quest because economic problems seem more tractable — more easily dealt with through the levers of government policy — while cultural issues seem more resistant to change. Perhaps it is because people’s economic troubles are often said to reflect larger, structural problems beyond their control, whereas their cultural deficiencies are sometimes seen as their own fault. When academics and journalists want to express affinity with the working class, in other words, they focus on poverty, and when they don’t, they focus on prejudice.
Controversy over economic versus cultural explanations of poverty can be traced to 1966, when the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, in his book “La Vida,” on Puerto Ricans in New York, wrote of a “culture of poverty” that seemed impervious to change.
Today, however, astute scholars do not see a wall between economics and culture. They acknowledge that financial hardship affects the daily lives of working-class Americans, but they add that how they respond is based on cultural beliefs that may lead them to scapegoat minority groups.
People with unstable or insufficient incomes may express their fears by talking about race because that is the way they have learned to interpret the world. People who are frustrated by their lack of progress may still try to defend the dignity of their work. It is a mistake to see economics and culture as distinct forces. Both propelled Mr. Trump to victory.
If you read this and think to yourself, "what does this have to do with demography?" the answer is of course that everything is connected to demography. Patterns of migration, patterns of births and deaths, and the demographic characteristics of different groups that are shaped by cultural changes taking place are all wrapped up in what we can generally call "cultural demography."

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