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, August 30, 2011

A New Way of Understanding What Might Kill Us

It has been more than half a century since the discovery of penicillin revolutionized our ability to control communicable disease. Since that time a lot of progress has been made on all kinds of diseases, although the emphasis has been more on degenerative diseases--treatments for cardiovascular conditions, cancer, and other issues that are associated especially with an aging population. But, a story in today's New York Times puts the control of bacteria and viruses back in the spotlight. The story focuses on the work of Dr. James M. Musser, chairman of pathology and genomic medicine at the Methodist Hospital System in Houston.
It is the start of a new age in microbiology, Dr. Musser and others say. And the sort of molecular epidemiology he and his colleagues wanted to do is only a small part of it. New methods of quickly sequencing entire microbial genomes are revolutionizing the field.
The first bacterial genome was sequenced in 1995 — a triumph at the time, requiring 13 months of work. Today researchers can sequence the DNA that constitutes a micro-organism’s genome in a few days or even, with the latest equipment, a day. (Analyzing it takes a bit longer, though.) They can simultaneously get sequences of all the microbes on a tooth or in saliva or in a sample of sewage. And the cost has dropped to about $1,000 per genome, from more than $1 million.
With rapid genome sequencing, “we are able to look at the master blueprint of a microbe,” Dr. Relman [from Stanford University] said in a telephone interview. It is “like being given the operating manual for your car after you have been trying to trouble-shoot a problem with it for some time.” Dr. Matthew K. Waldor of Harvard Medical School said the new technology “is changing all aspects of microbiology — it’s just transformative.”
One group is starting to develop what it calls disease weather maps. The idea is to get swabs or samples from sewage treatment plants or places like subways or hospitals and quickly sequence the genomes of all the micro-organisms. That will tell them exactly what bacteria and viruses are present and how prevalent they are.
Knowledge is power and we seem to be gaining at an increasing rate on these bugs that still can kill us.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Federal Judge Blocks Alabama Immigration Law--For the Moment

A Federal District Judge in Alabama has temporarily blocked the implementation of the new anti-immigrant legislation that was scheduled to take effect this week in Alabama. She blocked it only to give herself more time to study the law, so both sides apparently took comfort in that fact:

The ruling was cheered both by Republican leaders who were pleased the judge didn't gut the law and by opponents who compare it to old Jim Crow-era statutes against racial integration.
Blackburn didn't address whether the law is constitutional, and she could still let all or parts of the law take effect later. Instead, she said she needed more time to consider lawsuits filed by the Justice Department, private groups and individuals that claim the state is overstepping its bounds.
The judge said she will issue a longer ruling by Sept. 28, and her temporary order will remain in effect until the day after. She heard arguments from the Justice Department and others during a daylong hearing last week.
 While I certainly understand the frustration at the local level that the federal government has not implemented any kind of immigration reform, we can only hope that these egregiously punitive laws will be held back.
Similar laws have been passed in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia. Federal judges already have blocked all or parts of the laws in those states.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Urbanization is a Major Source of Environmental Degradation

An important new study has just been published in the academic journal PLoS One summarizing our knowledge of what growing urban populations mean for the environment. The authors--Karen Seto, Michail Fragkias, Burag Guneralp, and Michael Reilly--drew the following major conclusions:
The conversion of Earth's land surface to urban uses is one of the most irreversible human impacts on the global biosphere. It drives the loss of farmland, affects local climate, fragments habitats, and threatens biodiversity. Here we present a meta-analysis of 326 studies that have used remotely sensed images to map urban land conversion. We report a worldwide observed increase in urban land area of 58,000 km2 from 1970 to 2000. India, China, and Africa have experienced the highest rates of urban land expansion, and the largest change in total urban extent has occurred in North America. Across all regions and for all three decades, urban land expansion rates are higher than or equal to urban population growth rates, suggesting that urban growth is becoming more expansive than compact. 
The New York Times picked up on the story and noted that:
While shifting variables make predictions about future growth difficult, the authors write, a few things are clear: because two-thirds of urban areas with populations exceeding five million are in coastal zones at risk from sea-level rise, “inadequate responses to protecting coastal urban areas would be devastating to the economies and infrastructure of 13 percent of the world’s urban population.”
These are obviously important issues since the UN Population Division projects that virtually all of the world's population growth in the next few decades will be in or show up in cities, especially cities of developing nations. Furthermore, note that this refers only to the land near cities. It does not take into account the extensive ecological footprint of urban residents that extends to literally all corners of the earth.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Why Are We Still Even Talking About Vitamin A?

The BBC News today highlights a paper just published in the British Medical Journal that extols the virtue of Vitamin A supplements for children.

UK and Pakistani experts assessed 43 studies involving 200,000 children, and found deaths were cut by 24% if children were given the vitamin. And they say taking it would also cut rates of measles and diarrhoea. The body needs vitamin A for the visual and immune systems to work properly. It is found in foods including cheese, eggs, liver and oily fish.
The incredibly sad part of this is that we have to keep talking about it in order to get the world to remember how important Vitamin A is for children. A very nice history of the discovery of how important Vitamin A can be is told in the PBS special of "Rx for Survival--Back to the Basics." Dr. Alfred Sommer at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is interviewed in this program, which I highly recommend to you:
In the early 1970s, Sommer, an ophthalmologist by training, was working in some of the poorest countries on Earth for the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the Centers for Disease Control. There he began to focus his work on a devastating, startlingly prevalent eye condition called nightblindness.
"A child who is night-blind in a village in India or Bangladesh or Nepal literally can't fend for him- or herself," Sommer explains. "While other kids are walking around the village or playing with toys, these children huddle in a corner."
Sommer saw firsthand the tragic consequences of leaving the condition untreated. "The children will go truly blind, because what happens is the cornea, that clear front of the eye, just melts away. And it can melt away in the course of one day." Millions of children were losing their vision permanently, Sommer learned, because of a simple lack of vitamin A in their diet.
Discovered in 1913 by nutritionist EV McCollum, vitamin A was one of the first essential "micronutrients" to be identified. One of its functions is to produce a light-sensitive chemical called rhodopsin in the retina, which allows us to see in low light. This is why carrots help us see in the dark, along with liver and dark green leafy vegetables like spinach — all foods that were missing from the diets of the children Sommer encountered.
There was only one way to find out. Sommer and his team gave an oral dose of vitamin A to 10,000 children and compared them with children not getting vitamin A. The results were astounding: Just two cents' worth of vitamin A given twice a year reduced childhood mortality by a third. "We were absolutely elated," he recalls. "Suddenly you have a very inexpensive, practical way to save more than a million lives a year of young children, year in and year out, and prevent half a million children from going blind."
But critics dismissed Sommer's results as too good to be true, and he couldn't convince them that such a simple solution could save so many lives. "What was most frustrating of all was when you present the hard data and people just say they don't believe it. I mean, how do you deal with that?"
And so it is that decades later we are still having to convince the world that we need to get Vitamin A to children, instead of it just being an automatic thing to do. And don't get me going on people who don't want to give their children vaccinations...

Friday, August 26, 2011

Researchers Have Linked Climate Change and Conflict

A new research paper in Nature is reported to be the first to find a statistically significant relationship between climate change and conflict. The researchers, Solomon M. Hsaing, Kyle C. Meng, and Mark A. Crane, from Princeton and Columbia Universities, "looked at data on conflicts between 1950 and 2004 that killed more than 25 people in a year. They compared El Niño years, which happen roughly every five years, with La Niña years. El Niño tends to bring hotter, drier conditions - and La Niña cooler ones - to tropical countries, but both have less of an influence on temperate countries. The analysis included 175 countries and 234 conflicts, over half of which caused more than 1000 deaths. It found that the risk of conflict in tropical countries rose from 3 per cent during La Niña years to 6 per cent during El Niño years. The effect was absent from countries only weakly affected by these climate cycles."

The link between climate change and conflict is probably not a direct one, and the researchers were not able to nail down cause-and-effect relationships, but they do have some possible explanations in mind:
Lead author Solomon Hsiang of Columbia's Earth Institute said El Nino was an invisible factor -- but not the only one -- in driving intra-border conflict.By causing crop losses, hurricane damage or helping to spread epidemics of water-borne disease, it amplified hunger, loss, unemployment and inequality, which in turn fuelled resentment and division.
Other factors that could affect risk and the outcome are the country's population growth and prosperity and whether its government is able to manage El Nino events properly.
"Even though we control for all of these factors simultaneously, we still find that there's a large and pervasive El Nino effect on civil conflicts," Hsiang said in a teleconference.
Although the current crisis in the Horn of Africa occurred beyond the parameters of the study, it was a "perfect example" of the hidden destruction of an El Nino.
"Forecasters two years ago predicted that there would be a famine in Somalia this year, but donors in the international aid community did not take that forecast seriously," said Hsiang.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

New Marriage and Divorce Data from the Census Bureau, of all Places

The US Census Bureau has just published its first detailed report on marriage and divorce in the United States. Why? Well, the Census Bureau explains it thus:

Historically, data on marriages and divorces in the United States were collected from marriage and divorce certificates filed and collected at the state-level through the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) vital statistics system. In 1996, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the NCHS discontinued the collection of detailed state-level vital records data from marriage and divorce certificates. Beginning in 2008, questions about marital events were added to the ACS to collect national and state-level marriage and divorce data. These new marital events items fill a void in the marriage and divorce data collected in the United States.
The Associated Press picked up on the main findings:
Singles, take note: With marriages at an all-time low, states in the South and West rank among the highest for couples hearing wedding bells. But many of these states also have higher rates of divorce.
The first-of-its-kind analysis by the Census Bureau, released Thursday, also finds that people are waiting longer before marrying for the first time. In particular, the percentage of women who wed as teenagers has dropped precipitously since 1970, while many men are postponing marriage past their college-age years.
"Surprisingly, the South and West, which we think of as more socially conservative, have higher rates of divorce than does the supposedly liberal East," said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. "The reason is that young adults in the South and West tend to have less education and marry earlier, both of which lead to a higher risk of divorce."
"The South and West also have many migrants from other parts of the region who have left their social support networks behind. When they have marital problems, they have fewer people to turn to for help," he added.
As to the age at first marriage, the Census Bureau found that men and women were now joining in wedlock later and across a greater range of ages.
Pamela Smock, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, said the rising median age of first marriage is a reflection in part of the proliferation of new types of family groups, including couples who choose to live together and/or have children outside of marriage.
"People are no longer following some lockstep script about when it is time to get married," she said.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Will the Census Bureau Really Kill Off the Statistical Abstract?

There has been a great deal of moaning the past few days about the news from the US Census Bureau that it is thinking of shutting off the US Statistical Abstract, which is one of the most popular items on its already very popular website ( Reuters News Agency summed up the situation:

A cost-cutting plan by the Census Bureau to kill off its U.S. Statistical Abstract was under fire this week from pundits and policy experts who rely on the annual collection of census data.
Published since 1878 and now nearly 1,000 pages, the abstract summarizes key metrics -- some weighty and some just interesting -- on the social, political and economic shape of the United States and beyond.
The bureau said in its fiscal 2012 budget report to Congress that it could save $2.9 million a year by terminating the abstract. It said the move was a "difficult decision." Both the printed and online versions would be discontinued.
Paul Krugman, a columnist for The New York Times who is often at odds with Samuelson on policy issues, in a column on Monday also protested the bureau's judgment.
"The Statistical Abstract is a hugely important resource; experts in a particular field may not need it, but it's invaluable to non-experts," Krugman wrote."Killing the publication for the sake of a tiny saving would be a truly gratuitous step toward a dumbed-down country. And believe me, that's not something we need more of."
The problem, of course, is that Congress is threatening to cut the Census Bureau's budget by 25%. No one can continue to do what they're doing with only 75% of the previous resources. So, the most appropriate response is to contact your Member of Congress and make sure that they understand that cutting the Census Bureau's budget is not good business for America.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Some Elections Are Demographically More Important Than Others

Since the Constitution requires that Congressional Districts be redrawn after each decennial census, the election just before the census data come out winds up laying the groundwork for districts for the following decade. As it turned out, the Republican Party won a lot of seats in 2010 and has been in the position of driving the redistricting bus in the majority of states that still leave that process to the governor and legislature. As the Associated Press notes:
Republicans romped last November, gaining 63 House seats to secure the majority, winning 11 governorships, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, and seizing control of the most state legislative seats they've held since 1928. The GOP is capitalizing on its across-the-board control in 26 states — governorship plus legislature — in the census-based drawing of a new political map that will be a decisive factor in the 2012 elections and beyond.Nearly half of the states have finished redrawing House lines based on population changes, although lawsuits and Justice Department reviews loom. The immediate post-election claims that the GOP could add 15 to 30 seats in the U.S. House through redistricting have proven unfounded, in large part because Republicans captured so many seats last November. Instead, the GOP has used the redistricting process to shore up its most vulnerable lawmakers, people like Ellmers and Farenthold."Redistricting starts with Republicans at a peak," said Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. "They hold a solid majority of seats in the House. It's hard to gain much more."
The exceptions to this trend occur in states like California that have put redistricting in the hands of nonpartisan committees.
In California, Democrats have the potential to gain 3 or 4 seats based on the map drawn by the 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission, an independent panel that paid more attention to geography and ethnicity than incumbency. Longtime Republicans Gary Miller and Ed Royce face uncertain futures as does David Dreier.
We will see how this plays out in the 2012 election and the following four Congressional election cycles until things are changed once again by the 2020 census.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Malaria Treatment So Wacky It Just Might Work--Someday

The New York Times has a very interesting story today about a project that is being funded by the Gates Foundation to try to bring malaria under control. The idea is to treat patients (mice, to begin with) by placing them (or parts of them) in a very low wattage microwave. It will be some time before we know if this treatment will work to rid a body of malaria, but the article's main value is that in interviewing one of the method's co-inventors, Dr. Jose Stoute at Penn State, it provides a very nice summary of the complex biology of the malaria parasite, which helps us understand why this parasite has been a nemesis for thousands of years.
The idea, he said, is based on the fact that malaria parasites invade red blood cells and eat the hemoglobin inside them. Hemoglobin contains iron — and, as any bozo who’s ever tried to heat up a sandwich wrapped in tinfoil knows, it’s a bad idea to microwave metal.
Of course, the red cells containing parasites are floating along in arteries right next to healthy red cells, so whatever damage the microwave does to the parasites cannot be visited on the healthy cells, too.
And that, Dr. Stoute said, is where a crucial difference comes in: When a malaria parasite digests hemoglobin, it converts the iron into an inert crystalline pigment called hemozoin. The parasite must do that because free iron will tear oxygen atoms off things the parasite wants intact, like its cell membrane. The hemozoin crystals, packed with concentrated iron, are pushed into the parasite’s food vacuole — the empty space where a rudimentary creature that does not have a gut dumps its waste products. Drifting into an electromagnetic field with a vacuole full of hemozoin is about as brainy as stepping into a microwave with a stomach full of nails. But parasites don’t have brains, either.
Dr. Stoute and Dr. Spadafora [his co-inventor] have shown that they can fine-tune a custom-built microwave so that only the parasites are damaged. Their theory is that the heated-up hemozoin swells the vacuoles till they pop, unleashing an acid bath on the parasite’s innards. 
Even if the approach works in mice, all sorts of problems will have to be worked out before it is tested on humans, Dr. Stoute said. Hot spots like those that a microwave creates in liquids must be avoided. And any patient will undoubtedly need treatments for several days in a row, because the parasites hide in the brain, liver and spleen — and microwaving the head or abdomen is probably a bad idea.
“But eventually they have to come back out into the blood,” he said, “and that’s when we’ll get them.”
Since malaria parasites have shown an ability to develop resistance to all know drug therapies, we need to keep our fingers crossed for this idea, no matter how crazy it seems at first glance.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Women in Asia are Just Saying No to Marriage

The Economist's lengthy cover story this week is about the flight from marriage among women in Asia. Japan continues to be the prime example, but the story notes that the phenomenon is spreading to other Asian countries, including China and India. The basic story is a familiar one: women are increasingly better educated and in the labor force, but they are still expected to do the bulk of childcare, eldercare, and housework, while at the same time having little ability to divorce a man they no longer want to live with. This is pretty much a bad deal, and many women are rejecting it.
What is remarkable about the Asian experience is not that women are unmarried in their 30s—that happens in the West, too—but that they have never been married and have rarely cohabited. In Sweden, the proportion of women in their late 30s who are single is higher than in Asia, at 41%. But that is because marriage is disappearing as a norm. Swedish women are still setting up homes and having children, just outside wedlock. Not in Asia. Avoiding both illegitimacy and cohabitation, Asian women appear to be living a more celibate life than their Western sisters (admittedly, they could also be under-reporting rates of cohabitation and pre-marital sex). The conclusion is that East Asia’s growing cohorts of unmarried women reflect less the breakdown of marriage than the fact that they are avoiding it.
As women avoid marriage, men are forced to do the same even if they don't want to. In China, in particular, this is increasingly complicated by the distorted sex ratio at birth.
China has coined new terms to describe the two groups: sheng-nu (left-over women) and guang gun (bare branches, or men who will not add to the family tree). “Bare branches” is most commonly used in China to refer to men who will be unable to marry because of sex-selective abortion. And that encapsulates the biggest worry about Asia’s flight from marriage. If (when?) it spreads to China and India, it will combine with the surplus of bachelors to cause unheard-of strains. Prostitution could rise; brides could be traded like commodities, or women forced to “marry” several men; wives could be kept in purdah by jealous, fearful husbands.
The Economist notes that one solution to the bare branches problem is to bring in foreign brides, but that will only work as long as there is a supply of such women (usually through a deal brokered by their families), and the rise in the status of women is bound to bring that to an end.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Slave Maids in Lebanon

You have probably never have contemplated what the work of the Minister of Population in Madagascar might involve. Right? It turns out that one of her tasks is dealing with the tragedy of human trafficking. More specifically, dealing with the issue of poor women from Madagascar who are essentially sold into servitude in the middle east, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and in a story today from BBC News--in Lebanon.
Forced to work as a "slave maid" for wealthy families in Lebanon for 15 years, Abeline Baholiarisoa - a 59-year-old woman from Madagascar - finally achieved her freedom in March.
Madagascar's government chartered a plane to evacuate her and 85 other women.
The youngest of her four children, whom she left behind when he was six years old, played a key role in her evacuation, tracking her down via a welfare agency that rescues "slave maids", she says.
Ms Baholiarisoa says she was trapped in "a living hell" after being duped into going to Lebanon.
Madagascar's Minister of Population Nadine Ramaroson, the only government minister tackling the issue, says "a very organised network" involving senior government officials and businessmen emerged in the 1990s to engage in human trafficking.Ms Ramaroson says the government is trying to break the criminal networks, but it is not easy.Government officials provide fraudulent work permits, travel and identity document for around $5,000 per trafficked woman, social workers say.
While one job agency flew 300 women to Jordan last month with the government's approval, 43 women bound for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were stopped from boarding planes.
Ms Ramaroson said all were recruited from remote rural areas with high illiteracy and poverty levels. Some 16-year-old girls were given forged identity papers showing their age as 21.

Sadly, this is not an isolated story and I have mentioned the situation of foreign women as domestics before in reference to Kuwait and more recently Jordan, although in the case of Jordan is was less obvious that women were in a virtual slave situation as was the women in Lebanon in this story.

Obama Administration Backs Off on Deportations

The Obama Administration has systematically been deporting a record number of undocumented immigrants, as I have noted before. Today, however, came an announcement that the policy would change and that only those who posed a threat to national security or public safety would be targeted for deportation (remember that being an undocumented immigrant is a misdemeanor, not a felony). The New York Times focuses on the benefit to non-US-born children of undocumented immigrants.
The new policy is expected to help thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the United States as young children, graduated from high school and want to go on to college or serve in the armed forces.Under the new policy, the secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, can provide relief, on a case-by-case basis, to young people who are in the country illegally but pose no threat to national security or to the public safety.
The Associated Press looks at the bigger picture:

Laura Lichter, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the devil was in the details of reviewing 300,000 cases.
But whatever the result, she said, the policy does bring administrative changes to the immigration system at a time when congressional action seems unlikely.
Many Republicans have long opposed any immigration overhaul, including the DREAM Act, characterizing such proposals as amnesty.
While the new policy does not provide illegal immigrants with a path to permanent residency, it does allow those whose cases are indefinitely stayed to apply for a work permit. The government could also reopen deportation cases if an immigrant is arrested or other circumstances in their case change.
"Congress is so stuck in its partisan politics, the immigration situation is getting worse and worse and worse," Lichter said. "This is the administration's only way, and frankly a very appropriate way, to come up with an interim fix."
A cynical view would be that President Obama sought originally to appeal to Republican voters by cracking down on undocumented immigration. Instead, it seemed only to antagonize people who had voted for him in 2008, and so a softer stance is being taken to bring those people back to the voting booth in 2012. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Do You Think You Have Lung Cancer? Ask Your Dog

My wife and I have had German Shepherds for more than twenty years and we have always been impressed not just by how smart they are, but by the fact that they (like a lot of other animals) "see" things in the world that we can't. BBC News reports this week on an experiment at a hospital in Germany showing that dogs have a remarkable ability to diagnose lung cancer in a person by smelling their breath.

It is thought that tumours produce "volatile chemicals" which a dog can detect.
Researchers trained four dogs - two German shepherds, an Australian shepherd and a Labrador - to detect lung cancer.
Three groups of patients were tested: 110 healthy people, 60 with lung cancer and 50 with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a narrowing of the airways of the lungs.They all breathed into a fleece filled tube, which absorbed any smells.
The dogs sniffed the tubes and sat down in front of those in which they detected lung cancer smells.
They were successful 71% of the time. The researchers showed the dogs were not getting confused by chemicals associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or smoking.
Dr Thorsten Walles, the report's author from Schillerhoehe Hospital, said: "In the breath of patients with lung cancer, there are likely to be different chemicals to normal breath samples and the dogs' keen sense of smell can detect this difference at an early stage of the disease.
"Our results confirm the presence of a stable marker for lung cancer. This is a big step forward."
Will this lead to new employment opportunities for dogs? Probably not, but it is nice when animals can help us improve our health without having to be harmed in the process.

Do You Think You Have Lung Cancer? Ask Your Dog

My wife and I have had German Shepherds for more than twenty years and we have always been impressed not just by how smart they are, but by the fact that they (like a lot of other animals) "see" things in the world that we can't. BBC News reports this week on an experiment at a hospital in Germany showing that dogs have a remarkable ability to diagnose lung cancer in a person by smelling their breath.

It is thought that tumours produce "volatile chemicals" which a dog can detect.
Researchers trained four dogs - two German shepherds, an Australian shepherd and a Labrador - to detect lung cancer.
Three groups of patients were tested: 110 healthy people, 60 with lung cancer and 50 with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a narrowing of the airways of the lungs.They all breathed into a fleece filled tube, which absorbed any smells.
The dogs sniffed the tubes and sat down in front of those in which they detected lung cancer smells.
They were successful 71% of the time. The researchers showed the dogs were not getting confused by chemicals associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or smoking.
Dr Thorsten Walles, the report's author from Schillerhoehe Hospital, said: "In the breath of patients with lung cancer, there are likely to be different chemicals to normal breath samples and the dogs' keen sense of smell can detect this difference at an early stage of the disease.
"Our results confirm the presence of a stable marker for lung cancer. This is a big step forward."

Will this lead to new employment opportunities for dogs? Probably not, but it is nice when animals can help us improve our health without having to be harmed in the process.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

New Evidence of Family and Household Evolution in America

A new report on American families has just been released by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and it got press in today's New York Times.
The number of Americans who have children and live together without marrying has increased twelvefold since 1970, according to a report released Tuesday. The report states that children now are more likely to have unmarried parents than divorced ones.
According to the National Survey of Family Growth, part of the Centers for Disease Control, 42 percent of children have lived with cohabiting parents by age 12, far more than the 24 percent whose parents have divorced.
The report notes, however, that there are clear differentials in the population on this score:
The numbers also suggest a correlation with class. Americans with only a high school diploma are far more likely to cohabit than are college graduates, according to the report. 
“There’s a two-family model emerging in American life,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. “The educated and affluent enjoy relatively strong, stable families. Everyone else is more likely to be consigned to unstable, unworkable ones.”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Great Brazilian Fertility Crash

There was a time when fertility levels in Brazil were among the highest in South America--a TFR of more than six as recently as the 1960s and still nearly four in the 1980s. And, of course, that is one of the reasons why Brazil has nearly 200 million people--almost twice the population of Mexico. Indeed, one in two South Americans lives in Brazil. Now, the story with respect to fertility is very different. Fertility has dropped below the replacement level. Why? An article by Cynthia Gorney in this month's National Geographic picks up the story:
Population scholars like José Alberto Carvalho maintain a lively argument about the multiple components of Brazil's fertility plunge. ("Don't let anybody tell you they know for sure what caused the decline," a demographer advised me at Cedeplar, the university-based study center in Belo Horizonte. "We'll never have a winner as the best explanation.") But if one were to try composing a formula for crashing a developing nation's fertility rate without official intervention from the government—no China-style one-child policy, no India-style effort to force sterilization upon the populace—here's a six-point plan, tweaked for the peculiarities of modern Brazil:

1. Industrialize dramatically, urgently, and late, causing your nation to hurtle through in 25 years what economists used to think of as a century's worth of internal rural-to-urban relocation of its citizens.

2. Keep your medications mostly unregulated and your pharmacy system over-the-counter, so that when birth control pills hit the world in the early 1960s, women of all classes can get their hands on them, even without a doctor's prescription, if they can just come up with the money. Nurture in these women a particularly dismissive attitude toward the Catholic Church's position on artificial contraception. (See number 4.)

3. Improve your infant and child mortality statistics until families no longer feel compelled to have extra, just-in-case babies on the supposition that a few will die young.

4. Distort your public health system's financial incentives for a generation or two, so that doctors learn they can count on higher pay and more predictable work schedules when they perform cesareans rather than waiting for natural deliveries. Then spread the word, woman to woman, that a public health doctor who has already begun the surgery for a cesarean can probably be persuaded to throw in a discreet tubal ligation, thus ensuring a thriving, decades-long publicly supported gray market for this permanent method of contraception.

5. Introduce electricity and television at the same time in much of the nation's interior, a double disruption of traditional family living patterns, and then flood the airwaves with a singular, vivid, aspirational image of the modern Brazilian family: affluent, light skinned, and small.

And, finally, number 6: Make all your women Brazilians.
There are many more details in the article--and a lot of food for thought. There is also an NPR video on this story that provides some good visuals.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Jobs in Texas--What's Growth Got to Do With It?

Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, announced this weekend that he is running for President, and the pundits expect that his campaign will emphasize the theme that Texas has the answers for America in terms of how to grow jobs. However, in today's New York Times, Paul Krugman offers a correction to that view, and it has a decidedly demographic bent.

So where does the notion of a Texas miracle come from? Mainly from widespread misunderstanding of the economic effects of population growth.
For this much is true about Texas: It has, for many decades, had much faster population growth than the rest of America — about twice as fast since 1990. Several factors underlie this rapid population growth: a high birth rate, immigration from Mexico, and inward migration of Americans from other states, who are attracted to Texas by its warm weather and low cost of living, low housing costs in particular.
But what does population growth have to do with job growth? Well, the high rate of population growth translates into above-average job growth through a couple of channels. Many of the people moving to Texas — retirees in search of warm winters, middle-class Mexicans in search of a safer life — bring purchasing power that leads to greater local employment. At the same time, the rapid growth in the Texas work force keeps wages low — almost 10 percent of Texan workers earn the minimum wage or less, well above the national average — and these low wages give corporations an incentive to move production to the Lone Star State.
So Texas tends, in good years and bad, to have higher job growth than the rest of America. But it needs lots of new jobs just to keep up with its rising population — and as those unemployment comparisons show, recent employment growth has fallen well short of what’s needed.
The key point about this, as Krugman notes, is that other states cannot grow jobs by undercutting every other state in terms of wages and regulations. That would simply lead to a downward spiral for everyone. Of course, if wages dropped to a level as low as in China, then maybe jobs would return to the US...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pushback on the Alabama Anti-Immigrant Law

In June, the governor of Alabama signed into law one of the country's toughest pieces of legislation targeting undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Now, according to the NY Times, people are starting to push back against it, as best they can.
On a sofa in the hallway of his office here, Mitchell Williams, the pastor of First United Methodist Church, announced that he was going to break the law. He is not the only church leader making such a declaration these days.Thousands of protesters have marched. Anxious farmers and contractors have personally confronted their lawmakers. The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups have sued, and have been backed by a list of groups including teachers’ unions and 16 foreign countries. Several county sheriffs, who will have to enforce parts of the new law, have filed affidavits supporting the legal challenges.
An Episcopal bishop, a Methodist bishop and a Roman Catholic archbishop, all based in Alabama, sued on the basis that the new statute violated their right to free exercise of religion, arguing that it would “make it a crime to follow God’s command to be Good Samaritans.”
“The law,” said Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile, “attacks our core understanding of what it means to be a church.”

In one of the more bizarre parts of the law, it is now a crime in Alabama to give a ride to someone who is known to be an undocumented immigrant.
To some church leaders — who say they will not be able to give people rides, invite them to worship services or perform marriages and baptisms — the law essentially criminalizes basic parts of Christian ministry.

The U.S. government also thinks that the law overreaches a state's authority to legislate on such matters and has filed a suit against it.

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Convergence of Civilizations

I recently read (and very much enjoyed) "A Convergence of Civilizations" by Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd, who are researchers at INED, the French National Institute for Demographic Studies. This book was published originally in French but was translated and published this year in English by Columbia University Press. The book is what I would call an "interpretive essay," in the sense that the authors are attempting to interpret a broad temporal and geographic range of data trying to understand why rates of population growth are so high in some Muslim countries, in particular, although not so high in others. The basic premise is that the supposed schism in the world between Islam and the "West" is not a real phenomenon. Rather, all less developed nations, including those that are predominantly Muslim, are heading toward modernity through lower fertility and the key is the timing of literacy--especially for women, but also for men. It is literacy that matters in the world, not religion. As the authors note in their introduction:
The explanatory variable [for a decline in fertility] that has been most clearly identified by demographers is not the per capita GDP, but the literacy level of women...The elimination of illiteracy, then, points back to a  classic conception of universal history, that of the Enlightenment or the nineteenth century, as Condorcet conceived of it in his "Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind," or Hegel in his "Lectures on the Philosophy of History." It has no doubt gone a little out of fashion, but it remains relevant.
I could not agree more and I encourage you to read the book and see why the Enlightenment and literacy are still key elements in the world and will almost certainly influence the course of events over the next few decades.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Central Americans Account for the Majority of Latinos in Maryland

The Washington Examiner has a story today about the high percentage of Latinos in Maryland that are from Central America, especially El Salvador, despite the fact that the average American probably thinks that anyone speaking Spanish is from Mexico (which the US government now typically defines as being in North America, rather than Central America).
Central Americans now make up the majority of Maryland's Hispanic population -- the fastest-growing population in the state -- a growth primarily led by a large influx of Salvadorans over the last decade, new Census data shows.
In the last decade, the number of Salvadorans statewide more than tripled and their share of Maryland's Hispanic population increased by 11 percentage points, the largest jump of any group.
"It's important to keep in mind that a lot of growth is coming from children, so that has its own set of issues associated with it," said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. "[Especially] with certain countries like El Salvador and Guatemala where the economy and political conditions were so harsh that people who would not normally leave did leave."
This general pattern is not really news, of course, if you have read my Population text or the book "Irresistible Forces: Latin American Migration to the United States and Its Effects on the South," written by my son, Greg Weeks, and I. Still, it is interesting to see that the 2010 Census data are corroborating the trends that we have been seeing over time.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Will Robots Replace Human Workers in China?

If you look at the back of your iPhone or iPad you will see that it was "Designed by Apple in California Assembled in China." The Chinese assembly is handled by a Taiwan-based company called Foxconn. According to The Economist, its one million workers may make it China's largest employer. But humans are increasingly expensive, so Foxconn is now looking into replacing some of them with robots.
China’s competitive edge has long been its vast supply of cheap hands. But as the country grows richer, skills shortages are driving wages rapidly up. Foxconn’s decision to alter its mix of capital and labour is thus logical, and mirrors what many smaller firms are already doing.
Rising wages are good for Chinese workers, and for firms that want to sell them things. But they also raise questions. Do they spell an end to the cheap “China price” for manufactured goods? Will multinational firms shift production elsewhere? Or will Chinese firms adapt nimbly to automation and remain fearsome competitors? They might, but Chinese robots may be no cheaper than robots elsewhere.
Finally, will the shift to a more capital-intensive capitalism throw legions of workers onto the streets? The Chinese authorities will be watching nervously.

Where will the next generation of cheap labor come from? India? Africa? These are the two areas that will add the greatest number of people over the next three or four decades, so they are the logical candidates.

Monday, August 8, 2011

"Betting the Planet" revisited

Way back in 1980 Paul Ehrlich, author of the "Population Bomb" and Julian Simon, author of "The Ultimate Resource" (by which he meant people) entered into a bet that some called "Betting the Planet." Ehrlich believed that, as Malthus predicted, population growth would overrun resources, the evidence of which would be a rise in resources prices. Simon disagreed and argued that human ingenuity would solve the world's problems and so prices would not rise because humans would find substitutes for each resource and just move on. This week's Economist picks up the story:

Faced with a challenge from Mr Simon, Mr Ehrlich selected five metals—copper, chromium, nickel, tin and tungsten—whose prices he thought would rise in real terms over the following ten years. Mr Simon bet that prices would fall. It is clear in retrospect that Mr Ehrlich showed bad timing, since the late 1970s saw a cyclical zenith for commodity prices. But Mr Simon also had history on his side: real commodity prices fell steadily throughout the 20th century.
Mr Simon duly won the bet. The economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s also contradicted Mr Ehrlich’s wilder claims—that a billion people would starve to death and that, by 1985, America would be trapped in an “age of scarcity”.
But what if Mr Ehrlich had taken up Mr Simon’s 1990 offer to go “double or quits” for any future date? All five have risen in price since the rematch was proposed. Furthermore, Jeremy Grantham of GMO, a fund-management group, points out that Mr Ehrlich would have won the original bet were it recalculated today (he is still alive; Mr Simon died in 1998). An equally weighted portfolio of the five commodities is now higher in real terms than the average of their prices back in 1980.
The Cornucopians might argue that today’s metals prices are due to the buoyancy of demand in the developing world rather than any cataclysmic shortages in supply. But the Malthusians might retort that man’s famed ingenuity has not stopped prices from rising in real terms over an extended period. Place your bets.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Gentrification and Diversity in American Cities

Gentrification has been underway in richer cities of the world for decades, but the 2010 Census in the US has revealed that it is an important part of increasing the residential diversity of cities. The latest story comes from New York, where the NY Times reports on the transformation of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in NYC's Borough of Brooklyn "that traces its African-American roots to the early 19th century and has been the borough’s black cultural capital for decades."

Overshadowed by Harlem’s racial metamorphosis since 2000, an even more striking evolution has occurred in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Over all, the neighborhood is now barely 60 percent black — down from 75 percent a decade ago. But in the older Bedford section west of Throop Avenue, according to the 2010 census, blacks have recently become a minority of the population for the first time in 50 years.
“Both the fall of the crime rate and the improvement of the subway were conditions that made this neighborhood more attractive to people who might not have considered living there in the past,” said John H. Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
“In the 2010 census, the first thing we noticed was how the concentrations in many traditional black and white areas dropped off across so many blocks,” said Steven Romalewski, director of the mapping service of the Center for Urban Research at CUNY’s Graduate Center, which analyzed the census results block by block.
In Brooklyn, he said, “you can see how the white population, for example, is shifting eastward into traditionally black areas, while blacks are also moving eastward, especially to Flatlands and Canarsie.” Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who represents the area, said “some African-American homeowners have sold their houses and returned down South with the ability to improve their quality of life from a space standpoint or are moving to other parts of Brooklyn and to the suburbs.” “Others,” he continued, “have remained in Bedford-Stuyvesant, but have rented parts of their home out to newcomers, both black and white, to benefit from the increased market.” (The number of renters since 2000 has increased at a higher rate than the number of owners.)

San Diego's neighborhoods are far less famous to most people, but when the census data were first released, the San Diego Union-Tribune had reported similar trends in areas near downtown.
Defying the countywide 3 percent drop in non-Hispanic whites, neighborhoods ringing downtown San Diego registered a significant influx of whites this past decade as urban living gained popularity and historic neighborhoods underwent revitalization.Various improvements in the downtown core, redevelopment of East Village and construction of Petco Park helped to attract affluent and educated non-Hispanic white newcomers and businesses that cater to them, demographers said.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Hispanics Continue to be Victimized by US Immigration Policies

Professor Douglas Massey of Princeton has an excellent Op-Ed piece in today's New York Times that connects the dots between the current US immigration policy, the sub-prime mortgage practices that led to the housing bubble, and the rather astounding drop in household wealth among Hispanics as a result of the Great Recession. The latter finding is drawn from a new Pew Hispanic Center report that analyzes a just-released set of data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). Among the highlights of Massey's comments are the following points:

Hispanic families saw the largest decline in wealth of any racial or ethnic group in the country during the latter half of the last decade: from 2005 to 2009, their median wealth fell by an astounding 66 percent. The reason? The implosion of the housing market, where Hispanic families had invested much of their wealth.But that’s only the latest chapter in a much longer story. Over the past two decades Hispanics have moved from the middle of the socioeconomic hierarchy, between blacks and whites, to a position below both. On virtually every indicator of socioeconomic welfare, Hispanics fell relative to blacks.This has nothing to do with nativist tropes like work ethic or resistance to assimilation and everything to do with misguided government policy: our immigration and border-control system has created a class of people cut off from traditional legal and economic structures and thus vulnerable to the worst depredations of the market system.Because of the irresistible draw of the American economy, militarization of the border didn’t really affect undocumented in-migration, but it did reduce out-migration — migrants knew that once they left it would be hard to get back in. Whereas there were an estimated 3 million undocumented migrants in 1990, the number rose thereafter to peak around 12 million in 2007 and 2008, at which point half of all Salvadoran immigrants, 60 percent of all Mexican immigrants and two-thirds of Guatemalan and Honduran immigrants were here illegally.
Thus the sudden creation of a new class of people, working low-wage jobs outside the legal labor markets. Not only was it difficult for them to safely accumulate wealth, but they were left uniquely vulnerable to economic exploitation — such as the promise of a mortgage with little documentation required at signing.When the Great Recession arrived, many Hispanics got hit with a double whammy: not only were many Hispanic homeowners left with negative equity, but the collapse of construction jobs, which had been a primary draw for immigrants beforehand, eliminated the very means by which they could continue making mortgage payments.
There is no easy solution to any of this. A lot of Americans benefit economically from the exploitation of undocumented immigrants, and the current family preference system favors family members of current legal residents over people who are coming to the US to fill spots in the labor force. There is no single policy that can solve the current problem without harming some people at the expense of others. The dilemma (essentially a conundrum) is to work out a plan that does the least harm to the greatest number of people. This is not easy, which is almost certainly why it hasn't been done. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

East Africa Famine Worsens into "A Vision of Hell"

The famine in the Horn of Africa, especially Somalia, is getting worse, not better, according to all reports. The problem started with the worst drought in 60 years but is compounded by the fact that it is centered in a region of Somalia that is controlled by a militant group--Shebab--that is determined not to allow food aid to reach the victims. The victims are disproportionately children.

Across the sprawling mass of the Dadaab refugee camp - some 50 km sq (19 sq miles) - there are several graveyards now, full of small mounds of earth, where chronically malnourished Somali refugees have been buried.
Usually the graves are horribly small: infant mortality in this camp has risen threefold in the last few months, according to the United Nations.
Infants - children aged five and under - are especially vulnerable to malnutrition and all the illnesses and diseases which frequently accompany it, such as pneumonia and diarrhoea.
For the moment there is little hope of things better any time soon. Food aid is coming only slowly and what comes is impeded by militants, and the weather is not cooperating. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

HIV/AIDS in the News in the Middle East and West Africa

The incidence of HIV/AIDS is low by world standards in the Middle East and in many Western African countries, as well. But that does not mean that problems don't exist. Reuters reports on a new study by a group in Qatar published in PLoS Medicine suggesting that there is a generally unrecognized epidemic in a few middle eastern countries. This appears to be largely a result of men having sex with men (MSM):

Epidemics of HIV are emerging among gay and bisexual men in the Middle East and North Africa and high levels of risky sexual behavior threaten to spread the AIDS virus further in the region, researchers said Tuesday.
In the first study of its kind in a region where homosexuality and bisexuality are taboo, researchers from Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar found evidence for concentrated HIV epidemics -- where infection rates are above 5 percent in a certain population group -- in several countries such as Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan and Tunisia.
There is little published data on the Middle East and North African regions and Ghina Mumtaz, who led the study with colleague Laith Abu-Raddad, said this had been driving misconceptions that there is no reliable information at all.
"Men who have sex with men are still a highly hidden population in the region and there is stigma around this behavior, but some countries have been able to find creative ways of dealing with the problem and at the same time avoiding the social, cultural and political sensitivities," Mumtaz said.
In the meantime, the stigma against MSM in Africa has made headlines in Ghana.
The minister of Ghana's Western Region, Paul Evans Aidoo, publicly described homosexuality as "detestable and abominable" after media reports in late May that 8,000 homosexuals had registered with health NGOs in the country's west (the information appears to come from records kept by the NGOs of people who accessed services for MSM).
Aidoo has since called for increased security in the region and the arrest of all homosexuals. Other religious leaders and politicians have followed suit, condemning homosexual activity.
This of course only increases the chances that HIV/AIDS will become a bigger problem because it has raised fears among the population about going to NGOs that might be able to provide help.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Italy Moves Toward a Ban on Face Veils

The Italian Parliament is considering a bill that, if passed, would prohibit women from wearing a veil in public that covers the face. This legislation is similar to laws already in place in Belgium and France.
The bill, which has the backing of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's central-right coalition, would prohibit the wearing of a burka, niqab or any headwear which covers the face.If passed, those who defied the ban would face a fine of 150-300 euros ($213-426; £130-260) and some kind of community service, according to Ansa news agency.
For those who forced someone else to wear the covering, the penalty would be 30,000 euros and up to 12 months in jail, Ansa reports.
"Final approval will put an end to the suffering of many women who are often forced to wear the burka or niqab, which annihilates their dignity and gets in the way of integration," Ms Saltamartini [a member of Parliament] said in a statement.

Thus, the nominal reason for the ban is to encourage gender equity, although there is also some reason to suspect that concerns about multiculturalism and the integration of immigrants throughout Europe lies somewhere in the background as a motivation.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Demographics of Job Creation

One of the topics that keeps popping to the surface in the swirl of discussion around the debt ceiling and the deficit is: How do we create more jobs? More specifically, the observation is routinely made that Ronald Reagan was able as President to create jobs and reduce taxes at the same time. This of course ignores the fact that taxes actually rose several times during the Reagan administration before coming down, but setting that aside, Reagan was blessed by an unusually propitious age structure. He was the beneficiary of America's age dividend. The Baby Boomers blossomed during his presidency, providing a cohort of young workers (young = cheaper than older workers in most circumstances) without a large group of older people that the government had to pay for, and without a large group of younger dependents. During his administration from 1981-1989 the percent of the US population aged 15-29 was 27--higher than at any time since the end of WWII and it has not been that high since. The population aged 20-44 was 40 percent during his presidency--higher than at any time since the end of WWII and it has not been that high since.

To give you a comparison, the peak of the age dividend for China was in the 1990s when the percent 15-29 was 30 percent and the percent 20-44 hit 43. The US did not have quite such a good dividend, but it was pretty good, nonetheless, and the US economy was strong enough to take advantage of it. 

We have a different age structure now than in the Reagan years (the percent 15-29 is down to 21 and the percent 20-44 has dropped to 34. At the same time, the baby boomers who were finding jobs back in the Reagan years are now thinking about retiring and that scares lawmakers to death (figuratively, of course, not literally). Different age structures demand different kinds of policies, so the constant reference back to the Reagan years is, unfortunately, badly misplaced.