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:

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Peeking into Private Lives in the Arab World

This week's Economist carries a review of a book recently published by Shereen El Feki, titled "Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World." The demographic question of interest is what might this tell us about the prospects for fertility change in the region? The Economist sets up their review with the following background comments:
The Arab world today is widely criticised for its sexual intolerance. Women hide their charms under dark billows of fabric; girls have their genitals mutilated by elders determined to keep their desires in check; gay men are arrested and then raped by their jailers.
Once upon a time things were different. The Prophet Muhammad urged his followers to satisfy their partners in the bedroom. Prudish medieval Christians despised his detailed advice on the ins and outs of sex as “a cunning ploy to win converts”, which undermine their own faith’s fixation on virginity, chastity and monogamy. When Gustave Flaubert travelled to Egypt in the 19th century, he spent hazy days watching bawdy skits on the streets of Cairo about “whores and buggering donkeys”, and fleshy nights enjoying the local prostitutes.
Today East and West have shifted positions.
The book review reminded me that I had recently heard Ms. El Feki interviewed on NPR and was fascinated by her insights:
What she learned, she says, is that "the patriarchy is alive and well in Egypt and the wider Arab world," and that women, too, "are some of the staunchest upholders of patriarchal attitudes."
Women, for example, decide whether or not to circumcise their daughters and granddaughters. Men are not traditionally part of the decision-making process when it comes to female genital mutilation (FGM).
"[Women] are making the decisions about their daughters' well-being and FGM, to cut or not to cut," El Feki says. "They are making these decisions based on faulty information, but the fact is, they have agency; and the key to moving forward is to recognize that power and to shift it to a decision which is recognizing and respecting their child's physical and mental rights."
Admittedly, there are no clear lessons in her comments about the impact of intimacy on reproduction, but the winds of change seem to be blowing a bit in the direction of more control by women over their private lives. Historically, that has been accompanied by a decline in fertility and in most Arab countries that is the direction that the birth rate has been going.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Getting to Know the Center of the US

As I noted almost exactly two years ago, the US Census Bureau calculated from the 2010 census data that Plato, Missouri, was the new population center of the United States--the geographic point that averages the location of all Americans. In this months' Orion magazine, Jeremy Miller has a lengthy essay which starts with his trip to Plato to see where the center lies, and then spins off from there in a variety of directions (no pun intended), talking especially about how that center has shifted over time and how we can read history (and forecast the future) from that movement.
To trace the path of the centroid is to skim a great narrative spanning 220 years. That narrative is the nation’s history of growth, with each point along the way emerging as a sort of chapter: the rise of industrialism in the Northeast, the expansion of the western frontier, the waves of European, Latin American, and Asian immigration, the post–World War II population boom.
In 1790, the first decennial census plotted the center of population in Kent County, Maryland, some twenty-three miles east of Baltimore. It was just two years after the ratification of the Constitution, and the U.S. population was concentrated along the Eastern Seaboard in the port cities of Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Charleston. New York, with a population of a little more than thirty-three thousand, was the nation’s largest city—and has remained so ever since. It’s hard to imagine, however, that Marblehead—today a quaint and touristic village a half-hour north of Boston—was then the nation’s tenth largest city, with a population of just under six thousand.
And here is a comment with which I completely agree and yet it does not get enough attention:
But arguably, the most influential factor in this change of course is air conditioning. That the centroid is headed, of all directions, southward, is a testament to our ability to blithely overpower climate with the brute force of fossil fuel. According to the 2010 Census, the Sunbelt cities of Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, San Diego, San Antonio, and Dallas now comprise six of the country’s ten largest cities. Over the last decade, the population of southern states has increased by around 14 percent, the fastest growth of any region in the country, outpacing the national growth rate of nearly 10 percent.
But, on the other hand, he slipped a bit with this comment:
Today there are an estimated 11 million undocumented (which is to say, uncounted) immigrants scattered across the country. Any talk of the centroid or its “advance” must be considered in light of these unaccounted-for populations.
While some of these people probably were not counted, in general we estimate the number of undocumented immigrants by comparing counts of foreign-born persons in the census and other Census Bureau surveys, such as the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey, with the counts of authorized immigrants from those countries. The difference is assumed to represent the undocumented population. They are undocumented, but they are also counted.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Health in Africa

Since my own research over the past several years has focused on spatial inequalities in health in Accra, Ghana, the broader issue of health in Africa is obviously of interest to me. However, it really should be of interest to all of us, since sub-Saharan Africa is projected to have the fastest rate of population growth of any region in the world between now and the middle of this century. Thus, you really should tune it to a "Health Check" podcast by BBCNews on the topic of "Science Africa 3: What if..."
Four leading doctors [and this is an all-star cast] who have all worked on AIDS in Uganda discuss how to improve Africa’s health with Gareth Mitchell and Alan Kasujja.
Full disclosure: it is a 49 min podcast, so be ready for that.

Spoiler alert: If you have seen the Broadway hit "Book of Mormon" you will especially relate to this.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

People Are Good For Your Health

Humans are, by nature, social creatures. Thus, no matter how many times you have wished that someone would just leave you alone, or no matter how much of an introvert you might be, some contact with humans is better than no contact. Indeed, a new study with those kinds of results was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and summarized by
The scientists analysed data from 6,500 people aged 52 and older enrolled in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, which monitors the health, social well-being and longevity of people living in England. The researchers evaluated social isolation on the basis of the amount of contact participants reported having with family, friends and civic organizations, and they assessed loneliness using a questionnaire. They tracked sickness and mortality in study participants from 2004 to 2012.
The researchers found that social isolation was correlated with higher mortality — even after adjusting for pre-existing health conditions and socioeconomic factors — but loneliness was not.
“When we think about loneliness and social isolation, we often think of them as two faces of the same coin,” says Andrew Steptoe, a psychologist and epidemiologist at University College London, who led the study. But the findings suggest that a lack of social interaction harms health whether or not a person feels lonely, he says. “When you’re socially isolated, you not only lack companionship in many cases, but you may also lack advice and support from people.”
Other studies, referenced in the Nature article, have suggested that loneliness is not good for your health, and the authors of this study are not discounting the negative psychological effects of loneliness, but their analysis suggests that lives are shortened by social isolation, but not necessarily by loneliness. I guess the lesson is that you can be lonely in a crowd, but the crowd is good for your health.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Explaining Lower Than Expected Life Expectancy in the US

Despite being the world's richest country and despite the fact that the average American pays much more per person for health care than anyone else in the world, US life expectancy is not even in the top 20 in the world, as I have mentioned before. But why does the US lag behind others? Although a seemingly obvious answer had been that African-Americans on average lack the same access to health care as do whites, that difference--although real--had never been able to close the gap. Now a doctoral student in demography at the University of Pennsylvania, Jessica Ho, has helped us unlock this puzzle in a paper just published in the journal Health Affairs (subscription required). The story is summarized by
The new study finds that excess mortality among Americans younger than 50 accounted for two-thirds of the gap in life expectancy at birth between American males and their counterparts and two-fifths between females and their counterparts in the comparison countries.
Most of the excess mortality of those younger than 50 was caused by noncommunicable diseases, including perinatal conditions, such as pregnancy complications and birth trauma, homicide, and unintentional injuries including drug overdose, which Ho says is a striking finding of the study.
“These deaths have flown under the radar until recently,” Ho says. “This study shows that they are an important factor in our life expectancy shortfall relative to other countries.”
She points out that the majority of the drug overdose deaths stemmed from prescription drug use.
Ho says her study underscores the importance of focusing on policies to prevent the major causes of deaths below age 50 and to reduce the social inequalities that lead to them.
It is no surprise, of course, that her dissertation committee includes Samuel Preston, who quite literally wrote the book on how different causes of death shape a nation's life expectancy. Most recently, he was part of the National Research Council committee that published an important report on "U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health."
Ho's contribution is incredibly important, but we still have that other one-third of the life expectancy gap to explain...

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Does Demography Explain the Weakness of America's Recovery?

The Economist this week has an article whose subtitle is: "Demography may explain the weakness of America’s recovery." You know that I can't resist commenting on that titillating title. The first part of the story about the slowness of the American recovery is something that resonates with me: the economy is returning to a level that existed prior to the housing boom and bust, and that level was not great.
The notion that America’s potential growth has slipped is not new. Some economists have argued that the crisis itself undermined potential by starving innovative companies of financing and driving some workers, whose skills have atrophied from long spells of unemployment, out of the labour force. Mr Obama’s council [Council of Economic Advisors], however, makes a different argument: the lower trend was largely in place even before the recession hit.
This has been my perception all along. The economy was sluggish going into the housing boom, which is almost certainly why everyone jumped on that bandwagon--at last we had a solution to the slow economy. It was, of course, ephemeral. A few people are vastly more wealthy now than before, because they took advantage of the situation in some way or another, but most people are either not much better off, or are even worse off than before. And what about those jobs?
Since the end of 2007 the population over 16 has grown by 11.6m people and the labour force (those either working or looking for work) has grown by just 1.6m. As a result, the share of the population actually in the labour force has fallen from 66% to 63.5%, a tie for the lowest level recorded in more than 30 years. If the other 10m want to work but simply are not looking, they should arguably be included among the unemployed. But in fact, only a fifth of them say they want to work.
The White House council reckons demography is driving this drop. Labour-force participation is highest between 25 and 54; if the share of the population under 25 or over 54 grows, that will drag down overall participation rates.
This kind of thinking naturally ignores the fact that we live in a world economy, with a global labor force. A substantial share of middle-income factory jobs have gone overseas because wages are lower in China and other places. That has, of course, raised our standard of living, because so many things are now affordable that would not be affordable if people were being paid rich-country wages with benefits. That is just the demographic reality. 
Mr Obama wants to raise immigration levels. Reforming disability benefits and raising the retirement age would also help.
It isn't clear that more immigrants will raise productivity, but they offer a greater chance of doing so in the short-term than a rise in the birth rate. And, yes, as I've said before, I agree that raising the retirement age, and making sure that disability benefits go only to the truly disabled are good ideas to keep people in the labor force and being productive for as long as possible.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Rethinking the Millennium Development Goals

Delegates from all over the world have been in New York City the past week working with the United Nations to sort out the revisions to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In my book, I have complained for some time that the MDGs seemed to ignore the fact that the world's population growth is expected to continue to grow for the next several decades, reaching at least nine billion and perhaps ten billion. Indeed, several of the MDGs explicitly focus on lowering death rates, without really considering the consequences of that. Yes, we all want lower death rates, but that means more people alive and we have to plan for that. A blog in today's New York Times deals with the tricky sustainablability issue that is part and parcel of the MDGs:
Over the last several decades, sustainable human development has been conceived largely as the outcome of balanced work o nthree “pillars” — economic and social development and environmental protection. The authors, building on arguments that have been brewing for awhile, say that these concepts are instead nested one inside the next, not separate free-standing realms. Here’s how one author put it in a statement released today:
“As the global population increases towards nine billion people sustainable development should be seen as an economy serving society within Earth’s life support system, not as three pillars,” says co-author Dr. Priya Shyamsundar from the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics, Nepal.
The bottom line in each and every year is, however, the question of whether or not we can feed these people. And that inevitably touches the question of genetically modified foods, aka genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There is a lot of resistance to this in the rich countries, as I have noted before, but the reality is that we are well fed in the modern world only because of our ability to modify the environment and modify the seeds that we plant in those modified environments. This is a perspective that is, of course, shared by others, including a lengthy opinion piece today in Reuters.
Why be so concerned? On the plus side, GMOs may solve a key problem and enable global growth. They may solve the Malthusian conundrum, and prevent what people have been fearing for centuries — namely that the earth cannot support more than a certain number of humans consuming what they consume. Still, GMOs are widely distrusted, even hated.
The animus toward GMOs is widely shared, and yet, the prevalence of GMOs has been part of the massive increase in agricultural production over the last few decades. Yes, that point in not without controversy. Critics of the biotechnological advancements in agriculture claim that decades of use have not increased yields and instead have weakened the organic food chain, eliminated crop varieties and actually decreased the resilience of the food chain worldwide by reducing natural diversity.
Still, it’s undeniable that as the population has exploded in the last hundred years, so has our food supply. That is especially true in the last 20 years, which have seen the sharpest rise in acres planted with genetically-modified seeds. In 1992, there were about 5 billion on the planet; today that number is in excess of 7 billion and climbing. Yet far from there being food shortages, much of the world is in surplus. Not everyone has enough food, but it’s not for lack of supply, but because of distribution. Potable water is a far greater issue.
Keep in mind that the same scientific perspective, arising from the Enlightenment over the past 200-300 years, is why we have learned to control death and thus unleashed the massive population growth on the planet. We cannot simply embrace science for the purpose of controlling death, but not for controlling hunger.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Diversity is an Emerging Theme Among Latinos

Hispanics (Latinos) now represent the largest minority group in the United States, but they are also an increasingly diverse group--both spatially (in terms of where they live) and culturally (in terms of country of origin). John Logan and Richard Turner of Brown University have just published a "must-read" analysis of Hispanics drawn from the last three censuses--1990, 2000, and 2010. While the average American may assume that Latinos are all from Mexico (or maybe Cuba or Puerto Rico), that is not the case and there are important differences among the country-origin groups. NBC News picked up especially on differences that Logan and Turner found in patterns of residential segregation, in which persons of Mexican origin are not experiencing lower levels of residential segregation over time, whereas all other Hispanic groups are becoming less segregated. Here is a summary from Logan and Turner:
Except for South Americans the neighborhoods where Hispanics live remain much less advantaged than those of whites, and little progress is being made on that front. But there is one important positive sign here: the increasing residential integration with whites of every Hispanic national origin group except Mexicans. This is a phenomenon that has been submerged by analyses of Hispanics as a single large category, and recognizing it is an important payoff from looking more closely at Hispanics’ diverse origins.
No one is quite sure why Mexican Latinos are staying put residentially, but Logan offered a possible explanation:
While Logan is hesitant to pinpoint a reason, like the widely held belief that Latinos are more family oriented, he says it certainly could be a factor. “Kinship networks are very important to where people live,” he says. “They hold people in specific neighborhoods across generations.” 
Overall, this is a fascinating analysis with tons of potential hypotheses for future research.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Social Science Research Under Attack in Congress

In the last two days there have been very disturbing elements at work again in Congress to try to snuff out social science. You may recall attacks last year on funding for the Census Bureau. Now there are direct threats to eliminate fundng for social science research. As the American Sociological Association just noted:
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) is proposing a bill that will eliminate all federal funding for social science research. In addition, Senator Tom Colburn (R-OK) is proposing an amendment to a popular funding bill that will eliminate funding for political science research. The important work being done by social scientists is not being recognized by legislators. ASA website has tips on how you can communicate to policymakers.
And, the Population Association of America today sent out the following plea for action:
After being assured that Senators Coburn and McCain would NOT be allowed to offer an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2013 Continuing Resolution, H.R. 933, to transfer $10 million from the National Science Foundation Social, Behavioral and Economic Directorate political science research portfolio to the National Cancer Institute, we now understand that Senator Coburn is offering this amendment at 2:00 p.m. (EST) TODAY.

Please call your U.S. Senators NOW to urge them to vote NO on the Coburn/McCain amendment to transfer $10 million from the NSF SBE Directorate to the National Cancer Institute and towards overall deficit reduction. The amendment sets up a false dichotomy between medical research and research in the social sciences that we emphatically reject. The arguments for providing additional funds for NIH and specifically for NCI are obviously strong, and we wish Congress were providing more funding in FY13. However, such funding should not and need not come at the expense of political science research.
Over the past two hundred years, the Enlightenment has led to scientific knowledge that has revolutionized nearly every aspect of human existence. These un-enlightened members of Congress seem determined to turn back the clock to the scientific dark ages.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Will China Lift its One-Child Policy?

There has been enormous global speculation over the past few months that, with a change in leadership in China, there might also be a change in the One-Child Policy. Most of the talk about this, however, like in this week's Economist, is in terms of the idea that the Chinese economy needs more kids so that someone can pay for the graying population. Only a small fraction is about the human-rights issues associated with forcing women to have an abortion (which to me is as abhorrent as not allowing a woman to have one if she wishes). I have pointed out for years that China's birth rate was already in steep decline before the One-Child Policy was implemented and that Taiwan--populated heavily by exiles from the mainland--almost exactly mirrored the mainland's fertility decline on its own, without any restrictive measures. Indeed, elsewhere in East Asia--Japan and South Korea are prime examples--the birth rate is very low without the government having had to regulate people's reproductive lives.

So, I understand why we all should wish that the Chinese government would drop the One-Child Policy. What I understand less is why people in the West think that it would be good for China's birth rate to rise. World Bank data show that 30 percent of China's population is living on less than $2/day. To be sure, that's lower than India, where the number is 69 percent, but it is six times higher than the 5 percent in Mexico. China may have a lot of billionaires, but it also has extraordinarily high income inequality, and it is hard to see how more babies will improve that situation.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Ramping Up the Attacks on Women's Reproductive Rights

This week's Economist runs a story summarizing the status of abortion restrictions, especially in US southern states. It went to press just after the North Dakota legislature passed and sent to the governor a bill that would impose the country's tightest restriction on abortions, without representing an outright ban on abortion. Note, by the way, that my calculations show that the North Dakota Assembly is 83 percent male, and the Senate is 85 percent male.
The North Dakota Senate on Friday approved banning abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, sending what would be the most-stringent abortion restrictions in the U.S. to the state's Republican governor for his signature.
The measure would ban most abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected, something that can happen as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. The House already approved the measure. Gov. Jack Dalrymple generally opposes abortion but has not said whether he will sign the bill into law.The vote came with almost no debate in the Senate and after the same chamber approved another measure that would make North Dakota the first to ban abortions based on genetic defects such as Down syndrome.
Abortion-rights advocates say the anti-abortion measures in the North Dakota Legislature are attempt to close the state's sole abortion clinic, in Fargo. They also say the so-called fetal heartbeat bill is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, and its supporters should expect a costly legal fight if it becomes law.
The Economist does have an article on North Dakota, but it focuses on the economic and population growth stimulated by the oil boom in three of its counties. Given the problems associated with this boom (including the fear of a bust if oil prices should drop a bit), one might think that the legislature would be spending its time on issues of pressing importance to the state, instead of undermining women's reproductive rights.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Israeli Geodemographics

Many thanks to Abu Daoud for calling attention to a very informative article on Israeli geodemographics that just appeared in The article is timed to give readers a sense of what President Obama may be coping with on his visit to Israel next week, and it features an interview with Sergio Dellapergola, who is arguably Israel's pre-eminent demographer. The article includes a lot of useful demographic facts, some of which I have touched on before. Among the insights based on interpreting the data are these:
For Dellapergola, Israel's demographic future constitutes its central dilemma -- and this predicament has only been sharpened by the results of the recent election. Essentially, Israel faces two choices: It can be a conglomerate of tribes struggling against each other, or an open society that respects cultural and religious differences, where each citizen participates in building the economy and shaping the state's institutions.
Even more fundamentally, demographic trends mean that Israel can't have it all. It can't be a Jewish state, a democratic state, and a state in control of its whole historical land. It can only have two of its objectives at a time. Think of it this way: Israel can be Jewish and territorial -- but not democratic. Or it can be democratic and territorial -- but not Jewish. Or finally, it can be Jewish and democratic -- but not territorial. This third choice is the one that can conceivably lead to a two-state solution.
If you've ever read Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Dellapergola's projections have a ring of the Ghost of Christmas Future to them. Choices will have to be made. If they are not, Dellapergola seems to be saying that demographic realities will make the decisions, not Israel's leaders.
In other words, Israel cannot afford to ignore the demographic changes that are taking place within its own borders--never mind what is happening elsewhere in the region.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Papal Geodemographics

The College of Cardinals in Vatican voted yesterday to name Jorge Mario Bergoglio to be Pope of the Catholic Church. He has chosen to be called Pope Francis--which I happen to like because I'm a "fan" of St. Francis of Assisi. Despite the name, the new Pope is not from Italy, of course, but from Argentina--the first non-European Pontiff in 1,300 years. The last one, back in 741, was from Syria. 

Although there had been a huge amount of speculation about the prospects for a non-European Pope, including by me, I really did not expect it. One of the reasons was the demographic composition of the College of Cardinals, which includes all Catholic Cardinals under the age of 80 (a bit ageist, but I'm sure the idea is a compassionate one that travel to Rome is harder at the older ages). Despite the huge spread of Catholicism beyond Europe's borders, 60 of the 115 Cardinals voting for the Pope (52 percent) are from Europe, dominated by the 28 Cardinals (24 percent) from Italy. Over time, the majority of Popes have been Italian, and I suspect that it did not hurt that Pope Francis is descended from Italian immigrants to Argentina. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Great New Resources From the UN Population Division

The Population Division of the United Nations today posted some great new resources. In general, I find the UN Population Division to be a terrific go-to place for world and country-level population data, and these updated resources are very useful. Here's how they describe these new data just posted online:

1. World Contraceptive Use 2012
Contraceptive prevalence and unmet need for family planning are key indicators for measuring improvements in access to reproductive health. The data set World Contraceptive Use 2012 includes country data as of July 2012 on contraceptive prevalence among married or in-union women for 194 countries or areas of the world and unmet need for family planning for 111 countries or areas of the world. Detailed trend data on contraceptive prevalence (total and by type of method) are available from 1950 to 2012. Unmet need for family planning data (total, spacing and limiting) are available from 1986 to 2012.

The data set also includes new annual, model-based estimates and short-term projections from 1990 to 2015 of contraceptive prevalence (total, modern and traditional methods), unmet need for family planning (total and for modern methods) and related indicators. Median estimates with 80 per cent and 95 per cent uncertainty intervals are provided for 194 countries or areas of the world and for regions and development groups.

2. The Lancet article "National, regional, and global rates and trends in contraceptive prevalence and unmet need for family planning between 1990 and 2015: a systematic and comprehensive analysis" explains the methodology and key results of the model-based annual estimates and short-term projections. The link is here:
Article free of charge with registration

3. World Marriage Data 2012
Comparable and up-to-date national data on the marital status of the population by age and sex for 221 countries and areas of the world are provided by World Marriage Data 2012 on four key indicators: Marital status of men and women, Currently married men and women, Ever married men and women and Singulate mean age at marriage (SMAM).

For each of these indicators and to the extent that data are available, data are presented for five reference dates: 1970, 1985, 1995, 2005 and the most recent data available. Major sources of data on marital status are censuses, sample surveys and national estimates based on population register data or on estimation methods using census data. Information on the definition of each indicator, data sources and criteria for data source selection, limitations and data coverage is provided in the metadata file. The data set presents data available as of January 2013.

4. World Fertility Data 2012
World Fertility Data 2012 provides an up-to-date set of national data on fertility and the timing of childbearing for all countries and areas of the world. Six key indicators are covered: the annual number of births, crude birth rate, age-specific fertility rates, total fertility, mean age at childbearing and the mean number of children ever born.

Data are presented for five reference dates: 1970, 1985, 1995, 2005 and the most recent data available. Major sources of data are civil registration systems, sample surveys and censuses. Information on the definition of each indicator, data sources and criteria for data source selection, limitations and data coverage is provided in the metadata files. The data set presents data available as of January 2013.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Demographics of Gun Ownership

Largely due to the efforts of the National Rifle Association (NRA), research on gun ownership and violence is at a low ebb in the United States, although the CDC has been re-authorized to start such studies once again, as I have noted before. However, as the New York Times reported recently, the General Social Survey, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, with funding from the National Science Foundation, has been asking questions about guns in households for a long time, and has some surprising and interesting results.
The share of American households with guns has declined over the past four decades, a national survey shows, with some of the most surprising drops in the South and the Western mountain states, where guns are deeply embedded in the culture.
The rate has dropped in cities large and small, in suburbs and rural areas and in all regions of the country. It has fallen among households with children, and among those without. It has declined for households that say they are very happy, and for those that say they are not. It is down among churchgoers and those who never sit in pews.
The household gun ownership rate has fallen from an average of 50 percent in the 1970s [The General Social Survey first asked this question in 1973] to 49 percent in the 1980s, 43 percent in the 1990s and 35 percent in the 2000s, according to the survey data, analyzed by The New York Times.
Tom W. Smith, the director of the General Social Survey, which is financed by the National Science Foundation, said he was confident in the trend. It lines up, he said, with two evolving patterns in American life: the decline of hunting and a sharp drop in violent crime, which has made the argument for self-protection much less urgent.
It seems likely that the recent rise in gun sales is due to current gun owners buying more firearms, rather than more households acquiring a gun. 

The more specific demographic differences include these: younger people are less likely to own guns than older people; women less likely than men (and an increasing fraction of households are headed by women), Latinos are less likely than others to own a gun (and an increasing fraction of households are headed by a Latino), urban households are less likely than rural households to own a gun (and urban households represent an increasing fraction of households), and Democrats are less likely to own guns than Republicans.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Heart Disease is not a Modern "Invention"

It turns out that mummies can tell a lot of good stories, even after being dead for 4,000 years or so. A team of researchers led by Professor Randall Thompson, of Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, has found that mummies from several different parts of the world (not just the elite of ancient Egypt), show signs of heart disease. The research was published in The Lancet and BBC News has the story:
To try and get a better picture of how prevalent the disease was in ancient populations, the researchers used CT scans to look at mummies from Egypt, Peru, southwest America, and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.
They found that 47 or 34% showed signs of definite or probably atherosclerosis [hardening of the arteries].
As with modern populations, they found that older people seemed to be more likely to show signs of the disease.
This work is entirely consistent with the long-running work of Barry Popkin on the nutrition transition, focused on the idea that our genetic predispositions as humans have not changed much over time, but rather our diets have changed, at the same time that we have controlled communicable disease to the point that we now live long enough to feel the effects of the combination of aging and diet.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A "Demographic Transition" at the Population Council

Back in 1952, John D. Rockefeller 3rd founded the Population Council in New York City to provide a place where population issues could be better understood. He was one those visionaries who saw very clearly that the aftermath of WWII was going to be a huge demographic shift in the world, and he played an important role in helping the world to try to cope with that, not just from the point of view of helping to slow population growth, but also in terms of feeding the population--having helped to launch the Green Revolution with his support of Norman Borlaug's work in Mexico.

In 1975 the Population Council started the journal Population and Development Review (PDR), which has become one of the most influential journals in the field, focusing on the translation of population science into policy relevant issues. From the beginning, Paul Demeny was the editor of the journal and in his 38 years as editor, Paul shaped the journal and helped to shape the field of demography, as well. He is a Past President of the Population Association of America and the author of a long list of important publications. In December of 2012, at age 80, Paul Demeny transitioned into retirement from the editorship of PDR and the journal has just recently made available a supplemental issue that highlights policy-relevant papers in honor of Paul Demeny. The journal is open-access, and I encourage you to read it carefully.

Friday, March 8, 2013

International Women's Day

It seems very sad to me to that we have to have an "International Women's Day," but every year since 1975 the United Nations has celebrated this on March 8th. Of course, this does seem like a good idea given the recent attacks even in the United States on women's reproductive rights. This year's theme is violence against women, and is summarized on the USAID website:
Gender-Based Violence is a global pandemic that cuts across all borders - ethnicity, race, socio-economic status, and religion. It takes place in the home, in school, on the streets… at the hands of the state, community, and the family… during times of peace, but especially at during conflict and war.
President Obama just recently signed into law a strengthening of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in the United States. The reference to violence is largely in terms of physical abuse, but it can easily be argued that any kind of discrimination against a person on the basis of being a woman could be thought of as violence against women. Thus, the long-term goal is a seemingly simple one--equality of men and women.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Oh No! Yet Another Attack on Reproductive Rights

The front page headline in today's New York Times was this: "Arkansas Adopts a Ban on Abortions After 12 Weeks."
Arkansas adopted what is by far the country’s most restrictive ban on abortion on Wednesday — at 12 weeks of pregnancy, when a fetal heartbeat can typically be detected by abdominal ultrasound.
The law, the sharpest challenge yet to Roe v. Wade, was passed by the newly Republican-controlled legislature over the veto of Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, who called it “blatantly unconstitutional.” The State Senate voted Tuesday to override his veto and the House followed suit on Wednesday, with several Democrats joining the Republican majority.
The law contradicts the limit established by Supreme Court decisions, which give women a right to an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks into pregnancy, and abortion rights groups promised a quick lawsuit to block it. Even some anti-abortion leaders called the measure a futile gesture.
This is, unfortunately, a sad reflection of the truly mean-spirited attitude of the far right in this country. More specifically, this legislation (which will hopefully be overturned in short order) is what I think of as a "Taliban" mentality, because a largely male legislature (75 percent male in the two houses combined) is passing judgement on the reproductive rights of women. Although there were some women in support of this legislation, I can guarantee you that if men were at risk of getting pregnant, the conversation would be very different.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Illegal Immigrants Being Treated Illegally

The United States and Europe are not the only areas of the world in which illegal immigration occurs. Thailand, as it turns out, may have as many as two million illegal immigrants--about the same number as it has legal immigrants, according to a story in this week's Economist. 
Most of the immigrants are from neighbouring Myanmar; others are from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and further afield. Undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Smuggled into the country by unscrupulous brokers, they are sold into factory and other low-end jobs in ways that can amount to debt bondage.
The Economist reports that these migrants are helping to keep the economy afloat. That might seem strange for a country with 70 million people, but in fact the birth rate in Thailand is now below replacement level creating a demographic fit with sending countries who have higher birth rates and worse economies. Of course, the other problem is that it is typically harder to get away with abusing your fellow citizens than it is to put strangers into unspeakable situations.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Demographic Legacy of Hugo Chavez

My view of the world is that demographic indicators allow us to read the social and political health of a group of people. Today's death of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is a good time to put that idea to the test. Chavez was certainly one of the most controversial leaders of this young century, and people tended to line up strongly for or against him, as noted in a lengthy piece in But what happened demographically during the 14 years that Chavez was in power? The population continued to grow pretty much unabated, from about 24 million in 1998 when he took office to an estimated 30 million today (keeping in mind that back in 1950 there were only 5 million Venezuelans). 

Population growth is fueled by a combination of declining mortality. Life expectancy for females went up from 75 when Chavez was first elected to 77 at the time of his death; and infant mortality declined from 19 to 16., Chavez may have gone to Cuba for his cancer treatment, but Venezuelan death rates are moving in the right direction. There is also a small amount of immigration (more people are coming in than are going out). At the same time, the total fertility rate declined from 2.7 to 2.5. Since this is still well above replacement level in a country whose life expectancy is several years above the world average, the age structure is very youthful (about 30 percent under age 15) and that is driving the growth in population. Indeed, although none of these demographic indicators is very startling, and they are all in what might be called a positive direction, whoever leads Venezuela into the future is going to have to help the country deal with a population that, according to UN population projections, will add another 10 million people over the next twenty years. Coping with that isn't going to be easy.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Poison Pill of Border Security

Most of the discussion about immigration reform recently (and, really, for the past few years) has started with the premise that the border must first be secured before anything else can move forward. This has always struck me as a poison pill, because no one who thinks seriously about the border can really believe that you can shut everyone out. You can think about it in the abstract, in terms of fences, and detectors, and drones, etc., but the reality is that the border is very long and geographically very complex. Damien Cave has an excellent overview in the New York Times of what the border situation really is, compared to what people might imagine it is.
It is increasingly clear to those who live along the boundary with Mexico — or who try to protect it — that there is no such thing as a completely secure border, just as there are no cities without crime. Even in areas with towering walls and drones or helicopters overhead, border security can be breached.
The international divide is not a line or a series of doors to be locked and guarded, they argue. It is more like a 2,000-mile shoreline with ever-changing currents of migration, legitimate trade and smuggler tactics. The challenge evolves season to season. In Texas, where the border moves with the flooding of the Rio Grande, smugglers have started using fake Halliburton trucks to drive through areas where the company services oil fields. In San Diego, a few hundred migrants a year now arrive by boat, while the imposing fences that cost $16 million per mile are regularly overcome with ladders rented out for $35 a climb.
This is a lengthy article and a short posting like this can't do it justice. But the point is clear. If you insist that the border be genuinely secure before any other immigration reform can move forward, then you are in favor of not having immigration reform move forward. At the same time, we need to keep in mind that the real cause of the migration flow is the demographic fit between the US economy (which has low-end jobs on offer for which there aren't enough US citizens that can meet the demand) and the economies of Central America (increasingly to the south--both southern Mexico and south of Mexico) that still don't have enough good jobs to go around for the younger population. Understanding this nexus is the real key to long-run changes in how we think about migration policies.

And, of course, I haven't mentioned the drugs being demanded by US consumers... 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Death Risks Among Women Smokers Catching Up With Men

There are certain kinds of gender equity that don't do the world much good--smoking being a prominent example. An article published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine compares trends over time in the relative risks of death among smokers and non-smokers. It is now the case that among both men and women smokers the risk of death from lung cancer is 25 times higher among smokers than among non-smokers. Both male and female smokers have similarly higher risks of dying from chronic obstructive pulmonary condition (COPD). The Nation's Health (a publication of the American Public Health Association) interviewed the lead author, Dr. Michael Thun, former president of the American Cancer Society:
Smoking gained wide popularity among men about the time of World War I, Thun told The Nation’s Health, with popularity increasing among women about the time of World War II.
“The relative risks in women have lagged behind those in men for really all of the ways that smoking kills you,” Thun said. “The last very large study that looked at this from the American Cancer Society was in the 1980s. The point of this study was to see how the absolute and relative risks have changed in the last 20 years.”
“Probably the most important implication from our study is the international implication that unless smoking in developing countries can be reduced, they can expect to see, in another 20 or 30 years, the same sort of full consequences that first men and now women have experienced in our country,” Thun said. “This is a huge window of opportunity for prevention.”
About 17 percent of women in the United States smoke, but there are big differences by education, with less educated women being twice as likely to smoke as college graduates. Keeping cigarettes out of the hands of teenagers is perhaps the single most important prevention strategy, but the article emphasizes that quitting at any age improves your survival chances.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Africa on the Rise

This week's Economist has a special section devoted to Africa (meaning sub-Saharan Africa). There are many positive signs in the region--improving economies, increasing political stability, and progress along the demographic transition. with death and birth rates generally declining.
And Africa must make the most of two transitions it is now going through. The move from the countryside to cities offers the chance of a one-off boost to productivity both on the farm and in the slums. If African states bungle this, they will create a dangerous unemployed urban class. At the same time, though Africa’s population is still growing rapidly—it will double to 2 billion by 2050—families there are becoming smaller. This promises a “demographic dividend”, as the number of workers relative to children and the elderly increases. The continent must make use of this bulge of labour, and the savings it produces, for development. If they squander it, Africans will grow old before they grow rich.
This deliberate comparison with Asia may be a little exaggerated, however, unless much more effort can go into lowering the birth rate. Yes, fertility is declining throughout Africa, but generally not at the rapid pace necessary to create the kind of genuine demographic dividend experienced by East Asia. At the moment there is a huge bulge of youth, but not yet a big enough dent in the youngest ages to produce the "dividend." Just as a lot of work remains to bolster economic productivity and political stability, a lot of work remains to bring to Africa both the longer lives and smaller families that are keys to being "rich."