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:

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Unaccompanied Minors Are a Growing Challenge

One of the side-effects of the undocumented immigration disaster is the apparent increase in unaccompanied minors who are migrating. They may be seeking reunion with parents who migrated from, for example, Mexico or Central America to the US, or they may be seeking refuge from home environments that are dysfunctional for other reasons. No matter what the reasons, it is not a good situation, and the US does not have a good system for coping with them. Fortunately, there is a growing awareness of this and the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) in Washington, DC today held a live forum to discuss the issue. It featured Elizabeth Dallam, National Legal Services Director, Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), Lisa Frydman, Associate Director and Managing Attorney, Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, UC Hastings College of the Law, and it was moderated by Kathleen Newland, who is Director, Refugee Protection and Migrants, Migration, and Development Programs at MPI. I encourage you to download the report from the KIND website.

As I have mentioned before, one of my PhD students, Elizabeth Kennedy, is currently in El Salvador on a Fulbright Fellowship investigating these very issues, and I encourage you to check out the article in the LA Times in which she was quoted, which is a good lead-in to the MPI web forum.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Can Yemen be Saved?

Yemen is a country of 25 million people occupying the southwestern portion of the Arabian peninsula. Geographically, it is the southernmost country in what we typically call the middle east. While its demographics are not as disastrous as those of Niger, they are not good. With a current growth rate of 2.7 percent, the country is projected to double in size by the middle of this century. It is already the poorest country in the middle east--what will it be like with twice as many people, most of them very young? Well, it seems that the new government of Yemen has been asking itself that very same question. According to the 2013 round of United Nations questionnaires on population policies, Yemen wants to lower its rate of growth specifically by lowering its fertility rate. My thanks to Abu Daoud for pointing me to an article in the Yemen Times that discusses the work of the new National Population Council. 
Last week the National Population Council in Sana’a in cooperation with the United Nations Population Fund held a meeting entitled, “Population Programs …the Reality and Future Challenges,” in order to highlight current growth trends in Yemen and ways to cope with it. 
According to the National Population Council’s report, Yemen is now paying more attention to addressing population-related issues than it did in the 1990s. In 1991, the government adopted a national population strategy to address its expanding population. The introduction of family planning programs, as part of the strategy, has made a small dent in the population growth rate.
However, many of the efforts that were addressing population growth were suspended when the 2011 anti-government uprising broke out. The tumultuous events of the year-long protests largely put a halt to many of these programs as both international and national funding for them shrank.
This is troublesome for many. Hesham Sharf, the minister of higher education and scientific research, expressed concern about the population situation in Yemen.

“In the coming 10 years, the government will not be able to meet the population’s needs for education, health and services unless a practical strategy is adopted,” he said.

Dr. Ahmed Al-Ansi, the minister of public health and population, echoed Sharf’s sentiments, saying population growth needs to be a government priority.
For the time being, at least, the idea of limiting population growth is just an idea, not a reality. This is very unfortunate, because history suggests that the kind of growth that Yemen is experiencing will be a continuous source of potential political instability. It seems doubtful that the government really wants that outcome.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

We're in a Sea of Trouble

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) is due out at the end of March, but early versions are already circulating. One headline summarizes the report as follows: Climate Impacts ‘Are Very Evident, They’re Widespread’ And ‘We Are Not Prepared’. This week's Economist takes the climate change news and combines it with a general overview of the situation with the earth's oceans, and produces a pretty scary story.
ABOUT 3 billion people live within 100 miles (160km) of the sea, a number that could double in the next decade as humans flock to coastal cities like gulls. The oceans produce $3 trillion of goods and services each year and untold value for the Earth’s ecology. Life could not exist without these vast water reserves—and, if anything, they are becoming even more important to humans than before.
But these developments are minor compared with vaster forces reshaping the Earth, both on land and at sea. It has long been clear that people are damaging the oceans—witness the melting of the Arctic ice in summer, the spread of oxygen-starved dead zones and the death of coral reefs. Now, the consequences of that damage are starting to be felt onshore.
The article notes that oceans produce half the world's supply of oxygen (in addition to the work of the forests), but climate change may be lowering the ocean's ability to do that. short, the decades of damage wreaked on the oceans are now damaging the terrestrial environment.
The oceans exemplify the “tragedy of the commons”—the depletion of commonly held property by individual users, who harm their own long-term interests as a result.
We are over-fishing the ocean, dumping trash into it, and generally abusing it at will. We can be sure that this will come back to bite us, especially if the jellyfish have anything to say about it...

Monday, February 24, 2014

Demographics of Ukraine

The collapse of the government of Ukrainian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, following violence in the capital city of Kiev, has obviously put a big spotlight on that country. Although the news reports conjure up images not unlike those in cities of developing countries, this situation strikes me as having a very different demographic dynamic. In the first place, the Ukraine was an important part of the former Soviet Union and it is very similar demographically to Russia. It is less populous, of course, but its 45 million residents make it by far the most populous of the former Soviet Republics besides Russia itself. It has low fertility (well below replacement level), and relatively high life expectancy. However, just like in Russia, males in the Ukraine experienced a drop in life expectancy between the 1950s and the beginning of the 21st century, and it is only now starting to climb again, as is true in Russia. There is not a youth bulge--indeed the age structure is not unlike what one would think of as being a demographic dividend, if only the country could get its economic act together. And that, of course, is the problem. The country has excellent agricultural and mining resources, but not a good supply of energy. The latter is what Russia has been blackmailing the Ukraine with, and this has not been popular with a lot of people. Given the long historic linkage, not to mention physical contiguity, with Russia, it is hard to imagine that Russia (by which I mean Putin) is going to let the Ukraine "go" to the west without a struggle.

Part of the problem is spatial. As the Economist points out, the country is divided between the east (closest to Russia and the source of support for Yanukovych), and the west (closest to the rest of Europe and the source of support for Yanukovych's opponent in the 2010 presidential election-former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko, who was just released from a penitentiary hospital). Unfortunately, this is the kind of issue that can lead to civil war--we can only hope that it will be resolved more amicably than that.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Fragility of Males

Demographers have known for a long time that death rates are higher for males than females from the very moment of conception, and that nature seems to compensate for this by having a higher conception rate for males than for females. An article published this week in Scientific American pushes the idea a little farther, suggesting that males are clearly the weaker sex in terms of their vulnerability to all of life's hazards.
Once they make it to childhood, boys face other challenges. They are more prone to a range of neurological disorders. Autism is notoriously higher among boys than girls: now nearly five times more likely, as tallied by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are more susceptible than girls to damage from very low-level exposure to lead. Yet another problem: Boys also suffer from asthma at higher rates. There’s also a stronger link between air pollution and autism in boys.
What is up here? Why do boys face such a burden of physical challenges?
The answer is that the male’s problems start in the womb: from his more complicated fetal development, to his genetic makeup, to how his hormones work.
It’s the high levels of testosterone in the womb at critical times in gestation, according to British psychopathologist Simon Baron-Cohen, that are responsible for what he calls “the extreme male brain” – the kind exhibited by autistic boys – low in empathy, high in systematizing. And, in fact, recent decades of U.S. research do find unusually low estrogen and high testosterone levels among boys with autism.
If the balance of hormones is out of whack in males, what made that happen? Researchers are coming up with some clues.
The clues revolve around male hormone sensitivity to environmental toxins that we have unintentionally incorporated into our daily lives. The article builds on the author's book--Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill--which was published a few years ago, but a quick Google search reveals a large number of recent articles on the topic. It's still a theory, but one that is clearly in the testing stage.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Demographics of America's Farms and Farmers

Every five years the US government conducts its Census of Agriculture. Although a census, it is not, however, conducted by the Census Bureau. Rather, it is conducted by the US Department of Agriculture--that makes sense. The preliminary data from the 2012 census are just out, and they show a continued decline in the number of farms in the country. To start with, though, we need to how to know what is a farm: A farm is “any place from which $1,000 of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the Census year.”
In 2012, the United States had 2.1 million farms – down 4.3 percent from the last agricultural Census in 2007. This continues a long-term trend of fewer farms.
Between 2007 and 2012, the amount of land in farms in the United States declined from 922 million acres to 915 million acres. This decline of less than one percent was the third smallest decline between Censuses since 1950. 
In 2012, the average farm size was 434 acres. This was a 3.8 percent increase over 2007, when the average farm was 418 acres.
AgWeb reported today on comments about the census made by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who spoke about some key farm demographics:
Of more concern to the secretary, who is intent on helping to bring more young people into farming, is that the average age of principal farm operators, 58.3, continues to grow. The average age has grown by slightly more than a year since the 2007 USDA census.
The most recent survey shows slight increases in farmers under the age of 35 and 25. "But we need to accelerate those increases," Vilsack said, noting the large number of operators that are older than 65 and even 75.
Farmer operators are also overwhelming (95%) non-Hispanic white, and mainly (86%) female. It seems as though a demographic day of reckoning must be coming soon to America's farms.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Save the Monarchs--Plant Milkweed!

One of the most read items from the New York Times over the past few days has been the story about the threat to Monarch butterflies:
Hoping to focus attention on the plight of the monarch butterfly at a North American summit meeting next week, a group of prominent scientists and writers urged the leaders of Mexico, the United States and Canada to commit to restoring the habitat that supports the insect’s extraordinary migration across the continent.
Calling the situation facing the butterfly “grim,” the group issued a letter that outlined a proposal to plant milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s only food source, along its migratory route in Canada and the United States.
Milkweed has been disappearing from American fields over the past decade as farmers have switched to genetically modified corn and soybeans that are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate that kills other plants. At the same time, subsidies to produce corn for ethanol have increased, expanding the amount of land planted with corn by an estimated 25 percent since 2007.
A year ago, before knowing about this potential disaster, my wife and I planted milkweed throughout our backyard to encourage Monarch butterflies. Our experience was a classic case of "plant it and they will come." The female butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves of the milkweed and then the resulting caterpillar eats much of the plant as it (the caterpillar) grows in size. It then leaves the plant to form a chrysalis on a wall or leave or chair leg (many options seem to be available) from which the butterfly emerges (see photo below from our backyard). It is a true miracle of nature, and the idea that trying to grow more food for more people should endanger this species is too much to bear, especially when there is an easy remedy--plant more milkweed!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What Will be the Impact of the Nicaragua Canal?

Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the Americas, and its current population of 6 million is projected by the UN to reach 8 million by mid-century. However, the government expects Nicaraguans to be considerably better off economically because of the deal they have struck with a Hong Kong company to build a canal connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. This obviously competes with the Panama Canal, but the goal is to have a wider canal than is possible in Panama to accommodate the huge cargo ships that now carry goods between Asia and Europe and North America. But wait a minute, argues a story in today's Nature. This could be an environmental disaster.
No economic or environmental feasibility studies have yet been revealed to the public. Nicaragua has not solicited its own environmental impact assessment and will rely instead on a study commissioned by the HKND. The company has no obligation to reveal the results to the Nicaraguan public.
In our view, this canal could create an environmental disaster in Nicaragua and beyond. The excavation of hundreds of kilometres from coast to coast, traversing Lake Nicaragua, the largest drinking-water reservoir in the region, will destroy around 400,000 hectares of rainforests and wetlands.
The project threatens multiple autonomous indigenous communities such as the Rama, Garifuna, Mayangna, Miskitu and Ulwa, and some of the most fragile, pristine and scientifically important marine, terrestrial and lacustrine ecosystems in Central America.
The geographic key to the project is Lake Nicaragua, but this is not without its problems:
Lake Nicaragua, however, has an average depth of only 15 metres. The extensive dredging required would dump millions of tonnes of sludge either into other parts of the lake or on to nearby land. Either way, the sludge will probably end up as damaging sedimentation.
Lake Nicaragua would also serve as the reservoir for the canal's lock system, requiring dams to be constructed in an area of frequent seismic activity, which would increase the risk of local water shortages and flooding. The lake would probably suffer from salt infiltration in the lock zones, as in locks of the Panama Canal. This would transform a free-flowing freshwater ecosystem into an artificial slack-water reservoir combined with salt water. Declining populations of native aquatic fauna such as euryhaline bull sharks, sawfish and tarpon, important for sport fishing and tourism, could also suffer.
I have offered you only a partial list of the issues. I think that it is safe to say that this canal project is likely to hit some environmental snags, if not roadblocks.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sustainable Diets

The National Academy Press has just released a volume summarizing an Institute of Medicine workshop held last Spring aimed at exploring how we humans (with a focus on Americans) can adopt a diet that sustains our health at the same time that it sustains the planet. The goal of the workshop was to explore ideas, not necessarily to reach consensus, and this summary volume should be required reading for everyone. 

For one thing, it lays out the long and tortuous route by which we (and, in our train, other countries) have promoted obesity and thus poorer ill. The list itself is a familiar one, including less exercise, more processed foods, larger portions, more snacks--but it is good to have it all packaged together and backed up by good literature.

Equally important, it lays out the ways in which our dietary habits impact the environment and, in turn, how environmental conditions--and environmental change--influence what can be grown and thus eaten. If you have read Chapter 11 of my book, you won't be surprised by one of the key takeaways--meat production is one of the most environmentally harmful aspects of our diet and current levels per person are almost certainly not sustainable as the population continues to grow throughout the rest of this century: 36 percent of all calories grown in agriculture go to feeding animals, and 44 percent of land used for agriculture is used for meat production. This is not going to work in the long run.

The toughest part of the whole project, though, is to convince people that they need to change their eating habits. Research presented at the workshop suggests that labeling food, including restaurant menu calorie counts, has little impact on behavior. Taxes and other punitive measures are unlikely to be enacted. So, some middle road measures may be required--extending meatless Mondays to meatless weekdays, for example. It was pointed out that food producers respond to their shareholders, not to the needs of consumers, but they would have to respond if demand changed. In other words, the impetus for diets that are healthy for people and the planet at the same time must come from the bottom up, through the classic diffusion of innovations. Native Foods, for example, has great food--pass it on.

Monday, February 17, 2014


The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been instrumental in helping to find ways to reduce child mortality and HIV/AIDS (among many other things) in less developed countries, especially in Africa.  In 2012 they expanded the scope of activities to include ways of preventing unwanted births as a means to improving maternal and child health, as I mentioned at the time.  This week's Economist reports on one approach that they are helping to fund--improving the design of the condom so that it will be used more widely. This is a two-fer, since the condom helps to prevent pregnancy at the same time that it slows the spread of sexually transmitted disease, including HIV.
THEY have been made of tortoiseshell and horn. They have been made of the finest silk and the coarsest leather. They have been made of pigs’ bladders and sheep’s intestines. They have been made of rubber (natural and synthetic). They have been made of plastic. But none of these has quite fitted the bill. Condoms, though 15 billion are manufactured each year, and 750m couples use them, are not, when push comes to shove, that popular. In truth, they are awkward passion-killers that have a disturbing tendency to pop off at inconvenient moments.
Build a better condom, then, and maybe the world will beat a path to your door. That, anyway, is what a select band of researchers in laboratories around the world hope will happen. So does Bill Gates, whose foundation is backing some of these efforts with grants of $100,000 apiece as seed money, and the promise of up to $1m more if the initial experimentation comes good.
As the Economist points out, it is not clear how good or popular the various innovations they describe will be. Since the single biggest problem with condoms is that most men would prefer not to use them, any innovation that makes the condom less "intrusive" will likely increase its use, as will a condom that can be used by women, rather than their having to rely on men. The Economist is also a little bit cynical about the potential usefulness of research aimed at innovations in condoms.
That is suggested in particular by the different patterns of condom use seen in different parts of the world. According to the Population Reference Bureau, an American think-tank, 20% of married couples in rich countries use condoms, while 18% prefer the pill—and these two methods are the most popular forms of contraception in such places. In poor countries, intrauterine devices and sterilisation are the most popular methods, and the respective figures for condoms and the pill are 4% and 7%. Moreover, the rapidly falling birth rates in most poor countries suggest that, for family planning purposes, radical change is not needed. So the paradox is that if a better condom does emerge from all this effort, it may be enjoyed more by the rich world’s inhabitants than those of the poor world at whom, at least in Mr Gates’s eyes, it is aimed.
It is not clear where they came up with these numbers from the PRB, but they almost certainly are data only for married women and do not include data from sexually active single women, nor from men. Furthermore, it is a gross overgeneralization to say that we have "rapidly falling birth rates in most poor countries." And in many of the places where it is dropping, we are pretty certain that abortion, whether legal or not, is a key factor. Surely we would prefer that people use condoms.

North of the Border--Demographics of San Diego

Yesterday I had the pleasure of presenting the keynote address to kick off this year's annual meeting of the Western Regional Science Association, which was held here in San Diego. The incoming President is my friend and long-time colleague, Serge Rey, now at Arizona State University. There are lots of twists and turns to the changing demography of San Diego County, but an important part of the picture is the transition from a majority non-Hispanic white population to one in which no single group is the majority, although the Latino population is growing most quickly. This is most readily seen by the age structures in 2010 for the Hispanic and non-populations:

The bulge in the 20-29 age group is largely a results of the influx of college students and military personnel, but the baby boomers are predominantly non-Hispanic (mostly white), whereas a very large fraction of the younger generation is Hispanic. For its part, the age structure of the Hispanic population in San Diego is remarkably similar to that of Baja California, Mexico--San Diego's neighbor to the south:

Friday, February 14, 2014

Measuring Human Migration From DNA

Tracing the historical migration of people in eras prior to written records is not easy, and historians tend to rely on similarities between people (such as language) that seem as though they could not have happened just by chance, and thus must be evidence of population movements. A paper published today in Science and reported in the NYTimes takes this to a new level by studying human DNA. 
Though all humans have the same set of genes, their genomes are studded with mutations, which are differences in the sequence of DNA units in the genome. These mutations occur in patterns because whole sets of mutations are passed down from parent to child and hence will be common in a particular population. Based on these patterns, geneticists can scan a person’s genome and assign the ancestry of each segment to a particular race or population.
Now, geneticists applying new statistical approaches have taken a first shot at both identifying and dating the major population mixture events of the last 4,000 years, with the goal of providing a new source of information for historians.
Some of the hundred or so major mixing events they describe have plausible historical explanations, while many others remain to be accounted for. For instance, many populations of the southern Mediterranean and Middle East have segments of African origin in their genomes that were inserted at times between A.D. 650 and 1900, according to the geneticists’ calculations. This could reflect the activity of the Arab slave trade, which originated in the seventh century, and the absorption of slaves into their host populations. The lowest amount of African admixture occurs in the Druse, a religious group of the Middle East that prohibited slavery and has been closed to converts since A.D. 1043.
The Myers group [corresponding authors at Oxford University] has posted its results on a web page that records the degree of admixture in each population.
This is, in many ways, yet another approach to "family reconstitution" that demographers--especially at Cambridge University--have used to uncover the otherwise lost past. As the sample sizes increase, the ability to be more statistically precise will increase, and we will almost certainly to have a whole new perspective on human mobility.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A World Class Demographic Valentine

A lot of stuff comes into everyone's inbox around an event such as Valentine's Day, but I have to hand it to The Worldwatch Institute for being very innovative and demographically relevant. Here's the pitch:
Valentine's Day has long celebrated love with caring notes, decadent chocolates, and romantic arrangements of flowers. But why not also consider a gift that helps to offer women around the world something they want and need: good reproductive health care and the capacity to decide for themselves when and whether to have a child?
What would happen if we could meet the family planning needs of all women in developing countries---women who don't want to become pregnant, yet who may not have access to contraception? The Guttmacher Institute estimates that this would prevent 54 million unintended pregnancies each year. That in turn would prevent 21 million unplanned births, 26 million abortions (16 million of them unsafe), 7 million miscarriages, 79,000 maternal deaths, and 1.1 million infant deaths. And all that would cost an estimated $4.1 billion per year---about what the U.S. government spent in Afghanistan every two weeks in 2011.
To be fair, U.S. tax dollars go to this effort through USAID, and the United Nations Population Fund is also very active in promoting family planning throughout the world, but every little bit helps given the continually increasing number of young women in developing countries whose lives may be ruined as a result of their not having access to reproductive health care.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Humans as an Invasive Species

Few of us like it when mold takes over our bread or weeds take over our garden. But what about when we humans take over everywhere and ruin the place? That's the premise of a new book just out by journalist Elizabeth Kolbert titled "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History." The focus is on the way in which we have accelerated global environmental change in an almost certainly unsustainable manner and so our extinction will be the Sixth one. To her credit, she does have a sense of humor, as evidenced by her appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which (full disclosure) is where I found out about the book. A quick search of the title revealed that anthropologist Richard Leakey published a book with the same title and premise about 20 years ago. Compare and contrast. And then let's go out and try to change how we live. We have that ability in a way that the mold and the weeds do not.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Immigration "Reform" in Switzerland

Europeans tend to be more concerned about immigration than do Americans. This may seem paradoxical given the hard road for immigration reform in the U.S., but the U.S. is, after all, a nation of immigrants, whereas the European continent was, until quite recently, a region of emigration. The Swiss are the most recent Europeans to try to slow the flow, as Reuters (among many) reported:
Swiss voters on Sunday narrowly backed proposals to reintroduce immigration quotas with the European Union, Swiss television reported - a result that calls into question bilateral accords with the EU and could irk multinational companies.
While neutral Switzerland is not a member of the EU, its immigration policy is based on free movement of citizens to and from the EU, with some exceptions, as well as allowing in a restricted number of non-EU citizens.
In a nail-biting vote, 50.3 percent backed the "Stop mass immigration" initiative, which also won the required majority approval in more than half of Swiss cantons or regions, Swiss television said.
The outcome obliges the government to turn the initiative, spearheaded by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), into law within three years.
You can see the twist to this story. It is not immigrants from developing countries that are the explicit targets of this vote--it is other Europeans. Yet the excuse is the same--preserve the culture.
It reflects growing concern among the Swiss population that immigrants are eroding the nation's distinctive Alpine culture and contributing to rising rents, crowded transport and more crime. 
Net immigration runs at around 70,000 people per year on average. Foreigners make up 23 percent of the population of 8 million, second in Europe only to Luxembourg.
On the other hand, that's a lower percentage of foreign-born than we have here in California, as I have noted before.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Is This How the Japanese Keep the Birth Rate Low?

My thanks to Duane Miller for pointing me to a great news story about sex--or really the lack thereof--in Japan. The point of the story is that the Japanese of reproductive age are forsaking sex, and that this helps to explain the low birth rate. The source of the story is Russia Today--"a global news network broadcasting from Moscow and Washington studios. RT is the first news channel to break the 1 billion YouTube views benchmark."
Almost everywhere you look, it seems that sex sells - TV, films, music. But, in Japan, thousands of people are being turned off. Alexey Yaroshevsky explains why the Japanese are getting bored in the bedroom.
Keep in mind, though, that Japan did not approve the use of the pill for contraception until 1999 and even now it seems that Japanese women are less likely to use it than are women in most other developed nations. This may be partly because the pill is lower dosage than in most countries and there is a tendency to use condoms and then resort to abortion if that fails. Since men in general prefer not to use condoms, all things being equal, and since the burden of abortion falls only on the woman, abstinence may not look so bad to Japanese women.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Dismal Demographics of Puerto Rico

I suspect that a lot of Americans are blithely unaware that Puerto Rico is part of the United States and that all Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth. Certainly radio talk show host Laura Ingraham did not know that when she implied that Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor's family members were immigrants from Puerto Rico to New York. Migrants, yes. Immigrants, no. This long-term connection has not, however, necessarily been good for the island itself, as pointed out in a story in the New York Times.
Puerto Rico’s slow-motion economic crisis skidded to a new low last week when both Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s downgraded its debt to junk status, brushing aside a series of austerity measures taken by the new governor, including increasing taxes and rebalancing pensions. But that is only the latest in a sharp decline leading to widespread fears about Puerto Rico’s future. In the past eight years, Puerto Rico’s ticker tape of woes has stretched unabated: $70 billion in debt, a 15.4 percent unemployment rate, a soaring cost of living, pervasive crime, crumbling schools and a worrisome exodus of professionals and middle-class Puerto Ricans who have moved to places like Florida and Texas.
Puerto Rico, about 1,000 miles from Miami, has long been poor. Its per capita income is around $15,200, half that of Mississippi, the poorest state. Thirty-seven percent of all households receive food stamps; in Mississippi, the total is 22 percent.
But the extended recession has hit the middle-class hardest of all, economists said. Jobs are still scarce, pension benefits for some are shrinking and budgets continue to tighten. Even many people with paychecks have chosen simply to parlay their United States citizenship into a new life on the mainland.
Puerto Rico’s drop in population has far outpaced that of American states. In 2011 and 2012, the population fell by nearly 1 percent, according to census figures. From July 2012 to July 2013, it declined again by 1 percent, or about 36,000 people. That is more than seven times the drop in West Virginia, the state with the steepest population losses.
To be sure, a recent report from Pew Research shows that there already more Puerto Ricans on the mainland (4.9 million) than on the island (3.7 million). Still, those on the island represent a population larger than 23 of the current states in the U.S. The problems on the island are thus not small ones and it is not clear how this will play out.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Rotten Side of Immigration "Reform" in the US

Despite all of the discussion to the contrary, there is a real, but rotten, immigration reform taking place in America. As highlighted in this week's Economist, this "reform" has to do with the massive increase in deportations of undocumented immigrants that has taken place under the Obama administration. 
Last year America removed 369,000 undocumented migrants, an increase of nine times compared with 20 years ago (see chart 1). This takes the total number of the deported to almost 2m in Barack Obama’s presidency.

The Economist points out that President Obama claims that he has no control over this because it is a result of changes authorized by Congress in 1996:
..."when a Republican-controlled Congress passed a tough immigration law and illegal border crossings were running at four times their current level. especially in the wake of 9/11. The effects of this change in the law were limited at first. The year after it passed 115,000 people were deported. This is because the means to enforce it were not available. That changed after the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks when, by an odd jump of logic, a mass murder committed by mostly Saudi terrorists resulted in an almost limitless amount of money being made available for the deportation of Mexican house-painters. America now spends more money on immigration enforcement than on all the other main federal law-enforcement agencies combined.
It is, however, disingenuous of the President to suggest that he has no control over this, when in fact he has put it out there that he intends to take whatever executive actions he can in order to get around a dysfunctional Congress. And, as Gail Collins noted today in her column in the New York Times, House Republicans therefore don't trust him to follow the law, anyway, and that is why they now say they won't support the more humane immigration reform already passed by the Senate. In the meantime, millions of lives are being turned upside down with no obvious benefit to anyone or anything.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Little Health Bad News for First Born Children

As family size has fallen in the world over the past few decades, the effects of birth order have come under the analytical microscope. One of the first to do so was Judith Blake, who in 1992 published Family Size and Achievement, which reviewed the evidence that first-born children have a lot of social advantages that work to their benefit over time. Today's Nature has a new set of results that are not such good news for the first-born.
There has been a steady reduction in birth rates throughout the world1. Therefore, average family size has decreased, with a consequent increase in the proportion of first-born children in many countries. Thus, any adverse health outcomes associated with being first-born would affect an increasing proportion of the world's population.
There is some evidence that birth order influences growth and metabolism, from infancy to early adulthood. First-born babies have lower birth weight, but more rapid growth and weight gain in infancy, such that in childhood they are taller than later-borns. Importantly, first-born children have reduced insulin sensitivity and higher daytime blood pressure. Although the height discrepancy is reduced by early adulthood, first-borns have greater adiposity. Further, first-borns have been shown to have a less favourable lipid profile in young adulthood, with higher LDL-C, total cholesterol, and triglyceride concentrations than later-borns. Thus, being first-born may be associated with persistent changes in metabolism and body composition, that may lead to greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease.
This was a small study [26 first-borns and 24 second-borns], and although the results are statistically significant, the differences are not not substantively large. Still, it is something to keep an eye on, since this could influence health and death rates in ways that were otherwise unexpected.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Cancer on the Rise According to WHO

The World Health Organization has just released its 2014 World Cancer Report and the assessment seems to be something akin to a pox on your house. The report is not free, so I am relying upon a story in The Guardian, which notes that the report projects a 70 percent rise in cancer cases over the next two decades. Some of that will be due to the aging of populations in richer countries, but most of it will be found in the rest of the world.
The biggest burden will be in low- and middle-income countries. They are hit by two types of cancers – those triggered by infections, such as cervical cancers, which are still very prevalent in poorer countries that don't have screening, let alone the HPV vaccine, and increasingly cancers associated with more affluent lifestyles "with increasing use of tobacco, consumption of alcohol and highly processed foods and lack of physical activity", writes the World Health Organisation director general, Margaret Chan, in an introduction to the report.
Lung cancer is the most commonly diagnosed among men (16.7% of cases) and the biggest killer (23.6% of deaths). Breast cancer is the most common diagnosis in women (25.2%) and caused 14.7% of deaths, which is a drop and only just exceeds lung cancer deaths in women (13.8%). Bowel, prostate and stomach cancer are the other most common diagnoses.
Given the contribution of smoking to the expected increase in cancer cases, it is noteworthy that The Guardian also reports that CVS, one of the largest retail drug stores in the US, will stop selling cigarettes.
"Ending the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products at CVS/pharmacy is the right thing for us to do for our customers and our company to help people on their path to better health," said Larry J Merlo, CVS Caremark president and CEO, said in a statement. "Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose."
CVS said it will also undertake a nationwide smoking cessation program set to be launched in the spring.
All I can say in response to that is "Wow"--good for them!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Is Immigration Reform Really Not Going Anywhere After All?

On the night of President Obama's State of the Union address, I was impressed by the seeming hope that was held out that an immigration reform bill might pass, given the potential for some kind of compromise that would legalize undocumented immigrants without necessarily putting them on a path to citizenship. What I didn't pay attention to, however, was that the poison pill I mentioned nearly a year ago--border security--is still a precondition for House Republicans. This was pointed out in a letter to the editor of the NY Times by Wayne Cornelius of UCSD, arguably one of the world's foremost authorities on migration from Mexico to the US.
The strict “enforcement triggers” that House Republicans insist on including in a legalization program are actually poison pills. The Republicans’ proposal adopts the requirement included in the Senate bill approved last year that not one undocumented immigrant will be legalized until specific border enforcement benchmarks are met, and they would toughen those standards.
The triggers included in the Senate bill are unrealistic enough. For example, it is impossible to certify that the Border Patrol is stopping 90 percent of illegal entries all along the border using the methodology prescribed by the Senate bill. The government does not even collect the necessary types of data.
A decade of research by my team and others has found that nine out of 10 undocumented migrants apprehended on the first try succeed in gaining entry on the second or third try. Short of full militarization of the Southwest border, it will remain porous enough to prevent meeting the Republicans’ triggers.
It should be understood that members of Congress who vote for a bill making legalization contingent on meeting these triggers are simply advocating a program that may never be implemented — which is exactly what many House Republicans want.
So, here we go ahead again in Congress with big talk and the probability of doing something remaining close to zero.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Abortion Rate Drops in the US

The Guttmacher Institute released a report today showing that the abortion rate in the United States as of 2011 (the most recent date for which information is available) has dropped to its lowest level since 1973 when the Supreme Court upheld its legality. My initial conclusion when I heard the headline on TV this morning was that the strategy of going state-by-state to limit access to abortions had been working. However, as noted by USA Today, the author of the report pointed out that the time frame of their study--2008-2011--actually preceded most of these efforts. So, if not that, then what?
"Rather, the decline in abortions coincided with a steep national drop in overall pregnancy and birth rates. Contraceptive use improved during this period, as more women and couples were using highly effective long-acting reversible contraceptive methods, such as the IUD. Moreover, the recent recession led many women and couples to want to avoid or delay pregnancy and childbearing."
The study, published online in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, also finds an increase in the proportion of abortions that were early medication abortion. The non-surgical procedure uses the drug mifepristone, often called the abortion pill or RU-486, or the drug misoprostol. An estimated 239,400 early medication abortions were performed in 2011, representing 23% of all non-hospital abortions, an increase from 17% in 2008, the report says.
I don't personally know anyone who thinks that abortion is a preferred method of birth control, but other methods don't always work and it is for that reason that women need access. Abortion is a method with a long history and one that at least limits the last resort--infanticide--which has an even longer history than abortion in world demographic trends. The more alternatives women and men have to either one of these the better off the world will be.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Reconquest of the American West

Here on Super Bowl Sunday it is notable that there are relatively few Americans of Latin American origin playing American football. Indeed, the Seattle Seahawks roster shows no players with a Spanish surname, and the Broncos have only two. But those demographics are very different from what's happening "on the street." As this week's Economist points out, people of Mexican-origin are essentially reconquering the land that Mexico handed over to the US back in the 19th century. 
On February 2nd 1848, following a short and one-sided war, Mexico agreed to cede more than half its territory to the United States. An area covering most of present-day Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, plus parts of several other states, was handed over to gringolandia. The rebellious state of Tejas, which had declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, was recognised as American soil too. But a century and a half later, communities have proved more durable than borders. The counties with the highest concentration of Mexicans (as defined by ethnicity, rather than citizenship) overlap closely with the area that belonged to Mexico before the great gringo land-grab of 1848. Some are recent arrivals; others trace their roots to long before the map was redrawn. They didn’t jump the border—it jumped them.

The data come from the 2010 Census and have led demographers to joke for some time about the "Reconquista." The map tells the story very well.