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 13th (it will be out in January 2020), 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.

You can download an iPhone app for the 13th edition from the App Store (search for Weeks Population).

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

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Retirement Benefits Under the Gun in the US

Although the US population is not aging as quickly as Europe's or east Asia's, it is aging nonetheless, and the benefits that will accrue to an ever larger older population are coming under scrutiny. President Obama's Deficit Commission, headed by former Senator Alan Simpson, has proposed raising the full retirement age even higher than it currently is (which is higher already than in most European countries). This would involve "a gradual increase in the Social Security retirement age to 68 by 2050 and 69 by 2075, using a less generous cost-of-living adjustment for the programs and increasing the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes." There are also plans to reduce the costs of Medicare in a variety of ways.

The consensus seems to be that the various components of this plan are unlikely to be passed soon, but it is important to have them out on the table. We have known for a long time that the aging of the Baby Boomers was going to cause fiscal problems, but very little has been done to prepare for that time, and of course that time has now arrived.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Frontline of Global Climate Change

The Economist this week has a special report on global climate change in which they argue that it is, for all intents and purposes, too late to prevent it. It is happening and we can slow it down, and maybe even eventually reverse it, but for now we are going to have deal with it. 
The fight to limit global warming to easily tolerated levels is thus over. Analysts who have long worked on adaptation to climate change—finding ways to live with scarcer water, higher peak temperatures, higher sea levels and weather patterns at odds with those under which today’s settled patterns of farming developed—are starting to see their day in the uncomfortably hot sun. That such measures cannot protect everyone from all harm that climate change may bring does not mean that they should be ignored. On the contrary, they are sorely needed.
In lock-step with this is the story this week from Norfolk, Virginia, where the rising sea level--a consequence of global warming melting polar ice--has led to flooding of neighborhoods near the water.

“We are the front lines of climate change,” said Jim Schultz, a science and technology writer who lives on Richmond Crescent near Ms. Peck. “No one who has a house here is a skeptic.”
Politics aside, the city of Norfolk is tackling the sea-rise problem head on. In August, the Public Works Department briefed the City Council on the seriousness of the situation, and Mayor Paul D. Fraim has acknowledged that if the sea continues rising, the city might actually have to create “retreat” zones.
Kristen Lentz, the acting director of public works, prefers to think of these contingency plans as new zoning opportunities.
“If we plan land use in a way that understands certain areas are prone to flooding,” Ms. Lentz said, “we can put parks in those areas. It would make the areas adjacent to the coast available to more people. It could be a win-win for the environment and community at large and makes smart use of our coastline.”
Ms. Lentz believes that if Norfolk can manage the flooding well, it will have a first-mover advantage and be able to market its expertise to other communities as they face similar problems.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Migrating Toward the Future

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva, Switzerland, has just released its World Migration Report for 2010. You probably won't be surprised to learn that they expect migration to continue into the future:

There are far more international migrants in the world today than ever previously recorded – 214 million according to UN DESA (2009) – and their number has increased rapidly over the last few decades, up from 191 million in 2005. If the migrant population continues to increase at the same pace as the last 20 years, the stock of international migrants worldwide by 2050 could be as high as 405 million. At the same time, internal migrants account for 740 million migrants (UNDP, 2009) bringing the total number of migrants to just under 1 billion worldwide today.
The report also notes that the overall composition of migrants is changing:
International migration involves a wider diversity of ethnic and cultural groups than ever before. Significantly more women are migrating today on their own or as heads of households; the number of people living and working abroad with irregular status continues to rise; and there has been a significant growth in temporary and circular migration. 
These changes are not without consequences in Switzerland itself, where about 20 percent of the population is foreign-born. Voters in Switzerland have just approved a referendum that would automatically expel any foreigner convicted of a serious crime, instead of leaving it up to a judge to make a decision on a case-by-case basis. Earlier this year, Swiss voters approved a referendum that banned minarets in the country.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Yet another migration turnaround in Iraq?

Movements of refugees are the clearest signs of the havoc created by humans or by nature. The havoc of war in Iraq over the past several years produced an outflow of an estimated two million refugees. But, the high hopes associated with a return to civilian rule led 100,000 or so of those refugees to venture back home. However, the New York Times reports that they seem to find that no one really is ruling the country, and many are figuring out how to leave yet again.

In a recent survey by the United Nations refugee office, 61 percent of those who returned to Baghdad said they regretted coming back, most saying they did not feel safe. The majority, 87 percent, said they could not make enough money here to support their families. Applications for asylum in Syria have risen more than 50 percent since May.
As Iraq struggles toward a return to stability, these returnees risk becoming people without a country, displaced both at home and abroad. And though departures have ebbed since 2008, a wave of recent attacks on Christians has prompted a new exodus.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Being Thankful for Small Things

Depopulation has never been popular with humans--growth is almost universally valued over decline. So, the impending population drop in Japan is a fascinating topic for the potential lessons that it may offer, and The Economist, in particular, regularly revisits this theme, recently with a special report that emphasizes the economic downside of an aging population. Married women are not quite replacing themselves and their husband, and more importantly many women are postponing marriage to increasingly older ages and, unlike in many other countries, are not having children out of wedlock. At the same time, Japan's famously high life expectancy keeps the older generation alive longer than in any other population. 

In almost every other rich country of the world, immigrants (and especially their children--the small things for which societies are thankful--whether they acknowledge it or not) have kept the population from declining even in the face of below replacement fertility of the native population. The Japanese have steadfastly refused to employ this option, so their options for maintaining economic productivity come down to three: (1) keeping older people in the labor force longer (the kind of thing that the French recently rioted over); (2) allowing women greater scope in the labor force (breaking down the intense gender barriers that exist in East Asia); and (3) having more children immediately. The Economist suggests that "if Japan tackles its demographic problems swiftly, it has a chance of being a model of how to deal with ageing, rather than a dreadful warning." But, given what we know about population momentum, the birth rate option will not provide a "swift" solution. It will take at least two decades for the demographic momentum to swing around in Japan if an increase in the birth rate is the demographic option exercised, and it will require that the average woman not just have two children each, but more than two children each for this generation of young women. What are the odds of this happening?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The UK is Tightening its Immigration Belt

The new government of David Cameron in the UK has already introduced a variety of austerity measures to bring the government's budget under control. The latest move in this direction is to restrict the number of immigrants, based on the idea that some categories of immigrants are a burden on the welfare system.
Public anxiety over immigration — and the burden on public services caused by new arrivals — was a key issue during the country's national election, when then-leader Gordon Brown was angrily challenged by an elderly voter over workers arriving from eastern Europe.
Home Secretary Theresa May told the House of Commons that the number of non-EU nationals permitted to work in the U.K. from April 2011 will be capped at about 22,000 — a reduction of about one-fifth from 2009.
Work permits reportedly account for about 20 percent of immigrants, while the immigration of family members accounts for another 20 percent and students make up the remaining 60 percent. There will likely be future restrictions on student visa admissions. Additionally, there will be an English language requirement for people seeking to enter the UK through a marriage visa.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Urbanization Takes a Break in China

The future of China, as for the rest of the world, is an urban one. China has been building cities at a booming pace, catching up with the rest of world in terms of its level of urbanization relative to its level of development. The world-wide recession, however, has produced a hiatus in some of that growth, creating at least for moment the appearance of ghost towns in China, as evidenced by this report from NPR's "Here and Now."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Clash of Potential Disasters--How Do We Feed 9 Billion People?

October 16th is World Food Day each year, commemorating the establishment of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization on that day in 1945 in Rome--in a building that Mussolini had intended to be headquarters for Italian colonies around the world. The world has increased from 2.5 billion people to nearly 7 billion since that time and the average human is better fed now than then, even though nearly a billion are still undernourished. That increase has been fueled, of course, by the Green Revolution with its technological approach to farming. This year, however, "Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, said in a statement to mark World Food Day that there is currently 'little to rejoice about', and "worse may still be ahead". 

De Schutter said the emphasis on chemical fertilisers and a greater mechanisation of production was "far distant from the professed commitment to fight climate change and to support small-scale, family agriculture".
In addition, "giving priority to approaches that increase reliance on fossil fuels is agriculture committing suicide", he said.

Instead, there should be a global promotion of low-carbon farming, he said, adding that "agriculture must become central to mitigating the effects of climate change rather than a large part of the problem".
"Low-technology, sustainable techniques may be better suited to the needs of the cash-strapped farmers working in the most difficult environments," De Schutter said.
"They represent a huge, still largely untapped potential to meet the needs and to increase the incomes of the poorest farmers."
Climate change and agricultural development must be thought of together, instead of being dealt with in isolation from one another, De Schutter urged.

There can be little argument that organic farming methods, combined with preservations of forests, produce better food and better climate. This was the theme of an NBC special program this week featuring Charles, Prince of Wales, who has been a huge champion of this approach to agriculture. However, left unanswered in all of these discussions is how a return to these "traditional" approaches to agriculture will allow us to feed 9 billion people even at today's level of nourishment, not to mention an improvement in that level. This is genuinely the 9 billion pound elephant in the room and it has be addressed. We cannot simply say that organic farming can do what needs to be done--it has to be demonstrated. Will we have a disaster trying to feed 9 billion, or will the existence of 9 billion lead to disaster? That's a huge question.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Small Step for Humans, A Giant Leap for the Vatican

Excerpts from Pope Benedict's new book, "Light of the World," have been released by the Vatican, including passages that are accepting of the potential usefulness of condoms as a way of stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The pope cites the example of the use of condoms by prostitutes as "a first step toward moralization", even though condoms are "not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection".
While some Roman Catholic leaders have spoken about the limited use of condoms to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS as the lesser of two evils, this is the first time the pope has mentioned the possibility in public.
Benedict made clear the comments were not intended to weaken the Church's fundamental opposition to artificial birth control, a source of grievance to many practicing Catholics.
Even though the Church is not changing its position opposing condoms as a birth control device, the use of condoms as a way to stop the spread of venereal disease was an important way in the United States by which they got into the hands of people who used them to prevent not only the spread of disease, but also an unwanted pregnancy. This was one of the ways in which the birth rate in the US dropped to below replacement during the Depression, prior to the invention of modern chemical contraceptives, and at a time when it was generally illegal to obtain contraceptives.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Irish Migration Turnaround (again)

Ever since the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century, Ireland had been a nation of emigrants, until the government decided to lower the corporate tax rate in the mid-1990s, drawing in a flood of foreign investment and foreigners themselves searching for new work opportunities. A key to this was that, as a member of the EU, money and people from other parts of Europe could flow into Ireland pretty freely. The economic boom gave Ireland the nick-name of the "Celtic Tiger" and life was good. Or so it seemed. The boom boosted property values and developers borrowed heavily to cash in on the new prosperity. But the worldwide recession has brought all of that to a halt, and the debt--much of which was hidden by the state-owned Anglo Irish Bank--is now a national catastrophe. The predictable result is that people are once again leaving Ireland, although to be fair, most of the evidence thus far is anecdotal, not official.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Metropolitan America Interactive Map

The Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution has just updated its interactive "State of Metropolitan America Indicator Map" with 2009 American Community Survey data. It is a great tool for exploring the demographics of America's biggest urban areas. Check it out.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Is There Really Food Insecurity in the United States?

The media have been all over the recently released report by the US Department of Agriculture that 17.4 million households "had difficulty providing enough food due to a lack of resources, about the same as in 2008." Since there are 114 million total households in the country, this amounts to 15 percent of households, or roughly one in seven--and this latter figure was the major headline. The report also noted that the number of households receiving food assistance increased from 3.9 million in 2007 to 5.6 million in 2009. The Reuters news agency somehow managed to calculate this as having "nearly doubled" (come on, let's do the math!). In fact, there is essentially no food insecurity in the United States, at least not by UN Food and Agriculture Organization critera. Given the high caloric intake of the average American, not getting as much food as people want is not necessarily a sign of unhealthy deprivation. In many respects, that was actually the point of the USDA report, which celebrated the federal assistance programs that have kept hunger from the door of American households.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Riots in the Time of Cholera

I reported three weeks ago on the nascent cholera threat in rural Haiti, apparently spread downstream from a toilet used by Nepalese peace-keepers which emptied into the Artibonite river without any treatment. Since that time the disease has spread to Port-au-Prince and, along the way, has thus far killed nearly 1,000 people. This is not going over well in Haiti, as you might imagine.

Protesters who hold U.N. soldiers from Nepal responsible for a deadly outbreak of cholera that has killed nearly 1,000 people barricaded Haiti's second-largest city on Monday, burning cars and stoning a peacekeeping base.
A case of cholera had never before been documented in Haiti before it broke out about three weeks ago. Transmitted by feces, the disease can be all but prevented if people have access to safe drinking water and regularly wash their hands.
President Rene Preval addressed the nation on Sunday to dispel myths and educate people on good sanitation and hygiene. But sanitary conditions don't exist in much of Haiti, and more than 14,600 people have been hospitalized as the disease has spread across the countryside and to nearly all the country's major population centers, including the capital, Port-au-Prince. Doctors Without Borders and other medical aid groups have expressed concern that the outbreak could eventually sicken hundreds of thousands of people.
The suspicions surround a Nepalese base located several hours south of Cap-Haitien on the Artibonite River system, where the outbreak started. The soldiers arrived there in October following outbreaks in their home country and about a week before Haiti's epidemic was discovered.
One of the most famous analyses of cholera was that by John Snow in London in the mid-nineteenth century, which helped establish the whole field of epidemiology. It is almost unthinkable that in the 21st century it could be spreading in Haiti seemingly without a concerted effort to stop its spread. Yet, that appears to be exactly what is happening.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Will the Sea Rise Up and Grab Us?

Yes. The evidence is irrefutable that water temperatures are rising, glaciers are melting, and the sea level is rising. The only question to which we don't have a definitive answer is how much the rise will be. One or two feet one way or the other can make a huge difference in the number of humans at risk. The New York Times recently published a lengthy review of current knowledge on the subject. 

To a majority of climate scientists, the question is not whether the earth’s land ice will melt in response to the greenhouse gases those people are generating, but whether it will happen too fast for society to adjust.
Recent research suggests that the volume of the ocean may have been stable for thousands of years as human civilization has developed. But it began to rise in the 19th century, around the same time that advanced countries began to burn large amounts of coal and oil.
The sea has risen about eight inches since then, on average. That sounds small, but on a gently sloping shoreline, such an increase is enough to cause substantial erosion unless people intervene. Governments have spent billions in recent decades pumping sand onto disappearing beaches and trying to stave off the loss of coastal wetlands.
Satellite evidence suggests that the rise of the sea accelerated late in the 20th century, so that the level is now increasing a little over an inch per decade, on average — about a foot per century. Increased melting of land ice appears to be a major factor. Another is that most of the extra heat being trapped by human greenhouse emissions is going not to warm the atmosphere but to warm the ocean, and as it warms, the water expands.
Because we lack good data to model these changes, there is a certain casino approach to planning for the future. If sea level rises only two feet by the year 2100, then the problems will be less severe--albeit still severe--than if it rises by five feet. "A developing consensus among climate scientists holds that the best estimate is a little over three feet." Thus far, there seems to be little in the way of planning for this change, but adjustments are going to have to be made and the sooner they occur, the fewer the negative consequences there will likely be, because the rise will affect many of the major cities of the world, not just lonely beaches.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sex Ed About to Start in Malaysian Schools

Somewhat unexpectedly for a Muslim-majority country, Malaysia has announced that next year it will start teaching sec education classes throughout the country. This has been brought about by an increase in out of wedlock teenage pregnancies, leading to babies being abandoned by their mothers.

Giving birth out of wedlock carries a strong social stigma in Malaysia, a multicultural society embracing Muslim Malays as well as ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.
In 2009 there were 79 cases of baby-dumping but as of mid-September this year there had already been about 70, sparking alarm among authorities and in the community.
In May, the nation's first "baby hatch" centre for rescuing unwanted newborns was introduced in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. The centre, modelled on similar services in Germany, Japan and Pakistan, allows mothers to leave their babies anonymously.
The traditional way to prevent out of wedlock births is by oppressive surveillance of teenage girls, so the introduction of sex ed classes can only be seen as a positive move toward greater gender equity.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Today is World Pneumonia Day

Few people think about pneumonia any more--unless of course you or someone you know gets it and then it scares you to death. And that's the point, of course. Pneumonia is still out there killing a lot of people, which is why the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and many other groups try to publicize it with its own day.
Pneumonia remains the number one killer of children under 5 worldwide, claiming more than 1.5 million young lives each year – more than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. Yet this illness is preventable; by increasing access to simple, inexpensive tools such as antibiotics and vaccines, we can help save the lives of more than 1 million children a year.
Most of these deaths occur in developing countries, but the increasing volume of undocumented (and thus unscreened) immigrants all over the world increases the chance that diseases that otherwise seem under control may re-emerge. Even more importantly, the belief that these diseases are under control leads parents to believe, usually incorrectly, that immunization may be more dangerous than the risk of the disease. The latter issue may have contributed to the unexpected rise in cases (and infant deaths) this year from whooping cough in California.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Stark Contrasts in Gender Equity

Out of Spain this week comes news that the government may change the pattern of naming children, which has historically listed the father's name first, followed by the mother's name, but with the caveat that the father's name was "more important."

Spaniards have two surnames, and under current law for registering babies, either the father's or the mother's can come first. Traditionally, however, it is the dad's and in cases of disagreement among the parents, the father's name automatically takes priority.
But under a bill presented to Parliament, if a couple does not specify an order or cannot agree on one, a child's last names would be assigned in alphabetical order.
"I think this is good and also much more egalitarian," Jose Antonio Alonso, a Socialist Party spokesman in the lower chamber of Parliament, said Thursday.
To the east, in Afghanistan, however, life for women continues to be vastly unequal to men, and some women see attempting suicide by burning themselves as the only way out.
Even the poorest families in Afghanistan have matches and cooking fuel. The combination usually sustains life. But it also can be the makings of a horrifying escape: from poverty, from forced marriages, from the abuse and despondency that can be the fate of Afghan women.
It is shameful here to admit to troubles at home, and mental illness often goes undiagnosed or untreated. Ms. Zada, the hospital staff said, probably suffered from depression. The choices for Afghan women are extraordinarily restricted: Their family is their fate. There is little chance for education, little choice about whom a woman marries, no choice at all about her role in her own house. Her primary job is to serve her husband’s family. Outside that world, she is an outcast.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mobile Phones Outnumber Toilets in Developing Countries

President Obama has just completed a trip to India, one purpose of which was to shore up opportunities for US businesses to expand in a way that would benefit US workers. Organizations doing business in India are most apt to interact with the well-educated, English-speaking middle and upper classes, but it is important to remember that there is a huge underclass in India--an enormous (and still rapidly growing) segment of the population that lives on only a few dollars a day. As in much of the developing world, their scope in life is enhanced a bit by the now ubiquitous mobile phone, and ahead of the President's visit to India, it was reported that there are more cell phones in India than there are toilets. Data from UN-Habitat suggest that this is probably true in every developing country. Communication is an important part of modern life, but people also need public health and education (both of which require huge investments in infrastructure) if their lives are to materially improve. Mobile phones get around some of the infrastructure requirements of land lines, just as bottled or other packaged water gets clean drinking water into the hands of people without a huge water piping project. But that should not lull us into believing that all infrastructure problems are readily solved in this way.  

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Life in the Slow Lane

Baby boomers in the United States (and in Canada and Western Europe as well) represent not only a disproportionate fraction of the population, but an increasingly large fraction of all drivers. A symposium at the National Transportation Safety Board this week was treated to the news that 15 years from now, one in five of all licensed drivers in the United States will be age 65 or older. This is related not simply to aging, but also to the fact that the boomers are growing older mainly in the suburbs and exurbs, where there is very little in the way of public transportation. This essentially forces people to keep driving as they get older, because they have few other options.

Smarter cars and better designed roads may help keep them [older peoople] stay behind the wheel longer. But eventually most people will outlive their driving ability — men by an average of six years and women by an average of 10 years. And since fewer Americans relocate when they retire, many of them probably will continue to live in suburban homes. The result is a "mobility gap," Joseph Coughlin, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab, which develops technologies aimed at keeping older people active, said in an interview. "For many, our homes will not be just a place to age, it will also be house arrest," said Coughlin. Older drivers who are healthy aren't necessarily any less safe than younger drivers. But many older drivers are likely to have age-related medical conditions that can affect their driving.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Black Families are Increasingly Fragile

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control show that 72 percent of births to African-American mothers are out-of-wedlock--an increase over previous years. There are numerous explanations for this phenomenon:

The legacy of segregation, the logic goes, means blacks are more likely to attend inferior schools. This creates a high proportion of blacks unprepared to compete for jobs in today's economy, where middle-class industrial work for unskilled laborers has largely disappeared.
The drug epidemic sent disproportionate numbers of black men to prison, and crushed the job opportunities for those who served their time. Women don't want to marry men who can't provide for their families, and welfare laws created a financial incentive for poor mothers to stay single.
If you remove these inequalities, some say, the 72 percent will decrease.
"It's all connected. The question should be, how has the black family survived at all?" says Maria Kefalas, co-author of "Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage."
The evidence is strong that this situation can lead to a downward spiral for this entire segment of the American population, and this is the subject of extensive research taking place in the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study at Princeton and Columbia Universities: "The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study is following a cohort of nearly 5,000 children born in large U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000 (roughly three-quarters of whom were born to unmarried parents). We refer to unmarried parents and their children as 'fragile families' to underscore that they are families and that they are at greater risk of breaking up and living in poverty than more traditional families." The next huge set of questions, of course, is what can be done about it, and no good answers seem yet to have emerged. Everyone can agree that inequalities should be removed, but figuring out how to do that is a huge project.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Quantifying the Momentum of the Age Transition

The age transition is the single most important aspect of the overall demographic transition because the demographic changes to which a society must respond manifest themselves through changes in the age structure. It is also a difficult concept to quantify because it reflects so many changes taking place simultaneously. Professor Thomas Espenshade and some of his colleagues at Princeton's Office of Population Research have taken on this challenge by decomposing population momentum into that part which is due just to the difference between the actual and the stable age structures (what they call non-stable momentum), and that part which is due to the relative changes between fertility and mortality (which they call stable momentum). Their paper, which will appear in the journal Demography next year, is not necessarily an easy read, but here are some highlights:

Our estimates indicate that world population would grow by an additional 40% if global fertility rates had moved instantaneously to replacement in 2005. Nonstable and stable momentum contribute roughly equal shares to world population momentum. Taking natural logarithms shows that nonstable momentum accounts for about 53% of total world momentum, and stable momentum contributes roughly 47%.
The value for nonstable momentum reflects a country’s recent trend in fertility. In a stable population where fertility has been constant for a long time, nonstable momentum is nonexistent. But countries that have a history of fertility decline, especially a recent and sharp decline, will have larger values for nonstable momentum. The value for stable momentum is dictated by a population’s current level of fertility in relation to mortality. A high (low) net reproduction rate corresponds to a large (small) value for stable momentum. This decomposition gives us a new way of thinking about the determinants of overall population momentum. In addition, it allows us to integrate disparate strands of the population momentum literature and see how the various kinds of momentum that researchers have considered fit together into a single analytic and empirical framework.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

10-Year-Old Mother, and in Europe, No Less

It is rare anywhere in the world for a 10-year-old girl to have a baby, but especially in a European country such as Spain it seems shocking. Yet, a few days ago that happened in the city of Jerez, in southern Spain (the area perhaps best known for its Sherry--an Anglicization of Jerez). However, the story is more complicated because the young mother is reportedly the daughter of a Roma widow who migrated to Spain for work, but left her daughter behind with a grandmother in Bucharest, where the girl wound up having a sexual relationship with her cousin. The young girl joined her mother in Spain to deliver the baby. 
A relative in Romania has explained to the newspaper that, in principle, "the couple wanted and planned to raise the baby together, although I do not know if they even knew how to change a diaper." However, something went wrong with the couple and when Elena went to Spain to give birth, Gheorghe stayed in Romania.

Mom and baby are now living with relatives near Lebrija, where Olimpia try to gloss over the scandal: "These things are normal in my country. The girls marry at 10 years old so I do not understand why people are so surprised. Elena is fine, as is her daughter, who is a very pretty girl. "

A story such as this will naturally be held up as support for the French deportation of illegal Roma immigrants a few months ago. But, more importantly, it is a sad sign of the low status of women within this population.

But before we become too sanctimonious, we need to remind ourselves that in the United States in 2007 (the most recent data available) there were 6,195 births to girls under the age of 15, albeit disproportionately to Hispanic girls (2,411) and Black girls (2,310).

Friday, November 5, 2010

Black Plague Traced Genetically to China

Researchers have strongly suspected for a long time that Central Asia was the source of the bubonic plague, or Black Death, which wiped out much of Europe's population in the 14th century (after having devastated China), and which periodically reappeared in the west until the late 19th century. Now an international group of researchers has used new techniques of gene sequencing to confirm that China was the source of the plague, carried west by fleas that accompanied the rats that accompanied traders.
The authors in this new study say the plague evolved around the area of China over 2000 years ago and spread globally several times as deadly pandemics. They compared 17 complete plague genome sequences as well as 933 variable DNA sites on a unique worldwide collection of bacterial strains (plague isolates), allowing them to follow pandemics that took place in history around the world, and to work out the age of different waves of them.
In order to prevent bioterrorism, access to Yersinia pestis - the bacterium known to be the cause of the plagues - is seriously restricted; therefore, assembling a comprehensive collection of them is impossible. An international team of scientists from the UK, USA, Ireland, Germany, Madagascar, China and France had to collaborate for a decentralized analysis of DNA samples.
Melinda Meade and Robert Earickson, in their book on Medical Geography, remind us that the childhood game of ring around the rosy is a somewhat creepy relic of the old days of the plague in Europe. "Ring around the rosy" represents the rash around the flea bite; "a pocket full of posey" is a reminder that posey (a flower) was carried by people to prevent the spread of the disease (ineffectually, of course!); "ashes, ashes" or "achoo, achoo" (in Germany) referring either to the sign of the cross representing a sick person's home or to the sneeze that signaled the onset of the disease; and "we all fall down" meaning, of course, that we all die.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Another Setback for Saudi Women

There are few places on earth where women are more subjugated that in Saudi Arabia. Despite relatively high levels of education (always sex-segregated), and high levels of household income, the conservative clergy continues to push its ancient prejudice against women.

Saudi Arabia's top government-sanctioned board of senior Islamic clerics has endorsed a fatwa that calls for a ban on female vendors because it violates the kingdom's strict segregation of the sexes.
The powerful committee said in its ruling Sunday that the mixing of sexes is forbidden and women should not seek jobs where they could encounter men.
It may be that the high level of income is one of the very reasons why the severe segregation of women can persist. Families are still OK economically even if women are not in the labor force in large numbers, and families can afford to hire outsiders to drive women places and chaperone them in public. These are the petro-dollars at work.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Midterm Election Results of Demographic Interest

A few days ago, prior to the election, I noted some issues that were on tap for yesterday's midterm election in the US and now we have answers to at least some of the questions raised. In California we know that Proposition 20 passed which now gives a citizens commission created two years the power to draw congressional district boundaries in California, as well as the state legislative boundaries. This is designed to "take the politics out" of the redistricting process. At the same time, Proposition 27 in California failed, which is important because it aimed to eliminate the citizens commission altogether and hand the redistricting responsibilities back to the legislature. Since the Republicans generally won more gubernatorial and congressional seats than did Democrats, it is likely that this cascaded down to state legislatures (although I cannot confirm that of this writing) and so this should put Republicans in more advantageously drawn congressional districts in the 35 states that continue to have this task undertaken by legislative bodies rather than citizens commission. Of course, redistricting is not an issue in the seven states that still have only one member of the House of Representatives due to their small population--Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.

No one has yet had a chance to do an in-depth analysis of the relationship between pre-election polling and the actual results, but it appears that in some high-profile controversial races, such as that between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle in Nevada, the gap in the final results was considerably larger than had been projected based on pre-election polling. This could be due to changes in voter's minds, but it could also have been due to inappropriate weighting of demographic groups in terms of their likelihood of voting.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

UN Confirms That Life is Not Easy for Immigrants

On the same day that the US Court of Appeals took up the legality of Arizona's anti-immigrant law, the United Nations General Assembly heard about the plight of immigrants in many countries of the world. Githu Muigai is a Kenyan lawyer who is also the U.N. Human Rights Council's special investigator on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance. He spoke to reporters after presenting reports to the General Assembly on efforts to eliminate these practices:
"If I have found any specific group of people to be the subject of the most insidious contemporary forms of racial discrimination, those are migrants," he said. "And I think in many parts of the world today, immigrants bear the brunt of xenophobic intolerance — and this is true of the United States, and it is of Europe, and it is of many parts of the world."
Obviously xenophobia, which literally means fear of strangers, is going to be aimed especially at immigrants. The fact that the word comes from the ancient Greeks tells us that this is something that human societies have been dealing with forever. Having said that, however, it is nonetheless important to be regularly reminded that if immigrants are appropriately integrated into the host society, they then become the in-group members. 

On a related note, the MSNBC site from which this story was pulled also has a very useful time-line of immigration to the United States.

Monday, November 1, 2010

China Counts Itself

The world's most populous country is undertaking the world's biggest census, and it promises to be better than previous ones.
China has kicked off its national census, sending out six million census takers to go door-to-door to document the demographic changes in the world's most populous country. 
Chinese census officials on Monday [1 November 2010]  began fanning out across the country to try to visit 400 million households over the next 10 days.
For the first time since the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, China will count people based on where they actually live, rather than where they are registered under the household registration, or hukou, system.
Also, for the first time, the census will include foreigners living in China.The results will help measure the degree of China's urbanization, as well as previously uncounted children born in violation of the one-child policy.

The latter issue will be one of the more important ones, since there is an ongoing debate about what the actual level of fertility in China is, given a variety of assumptions about "illegal" births. At the same time, there is almost certainly a strong incentive for people to continue to hide the existence of these children from the government, despite government assurances of amnesty