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, October 30, 2014

Census by Cell Phone? Maybe

A "census from heaven" is how Paul Sutton and his colleagues labeled their attempt back in 2001 to estimate global population distribution from night-time lights satellite imagery--a method that is still used, by the way. Many others have used satellite imagery in a variety of other ways to accomplish the same objective, including LandScan, Gridded Population of the World, and the U.S. Census Bureau's DemoBase. Among the currently most ambitious of the efforts to use only satellite imagery to estimate population size is the WorldPop project led by Andy Tatem at the University of Southampton in the UK, as I noted a few months ago.

So, it was with considerable interest that I saw that Tatem was among those who just published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing how cell phone tracking might also be a viable way of estimating populations in otherwise hard-to-measure populations. The online service of the AAAS covered the story:
Ninety-six percent of the world’s people have active cellphone subscriptions. In developed countries, the number of mobile phone subscribers has surpassed the total population as some individuals own more than one phone, and subscription rates continue to rise in developing countries, reaching as high as 90%. That’s great news for census scientists, because they can locate the calls by identifying the cellphone towers that send and receive them and use call density around the phone towers to estimate the local population density. [SEE MAP BELOW]
And, yes, before you blink twice and say that can't be, the paper does provide a citation for that 96% coverage number. Indeed, in Ghana, where I and my colleagues make extensive use of satellite imagery, it is now almost unheard of not to own a mobile phone. The combination of communication satellites and cell towers has put the world into the hands of nearly all humans, and that means we can figure out where they are (or at least which cell tower they are closest to at a particular time on a given day). Will this replace the census?
The study shows the merit as well as limitation of big data, says statistician Tom Louis, chief scientist at the U.S. Census Bureau at Suitland, Maryland, who was not involved with the work. Though the information is timely, it is not yet accurate enough for official use, he says. “Big data can be very valuable, but at least at this point in our history, it needs the validation of traditional surveys to show that it works.”
But for low-income countries, where census data are likely outdated and unreliable, mobile phone records present an easy and efficient alternative, Linard says. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, the most recent census took place in 1984. In contrast, about 70% of the people subscribe to mobile phones.
Population distribution is a start, of course. Eventually we want to fill in those numbers with sociodemographic characteristics. That's where social media accessed by those mobile phones may come into play. Don't hang up...

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Art of Measuring Mortality in Africa

Has the number of deaths from Ebola dropped below expectations in Liberia? The New York Times poses the question:
Around the country, treatment centers, laboratory workers who test for Ebola, and international and national health officials trying to track the epidemic have noticed an unexpected pattern: There are far fewer people being treated for Ebola than anticipated.
Some consider the latest developments an indication that the efforts to combat the virus, including the opening of new treatment units, are beginning to succeed.
There is also the likelihood that many people dying of Ebola in Liberia are hidden from the authorities, as has been true throughout the epidemic.
Many parts of the country are not well monitored, many contacts of Ebola patients are not traced, and officials have long acknowledged that the statistics on the numbers of Ebola cases across West Africa are rough estimates, at best.
Not only are Ebola cases rough estimates, the number and causes of deaths in general are rough estimates throughout Africa. I was thinking about this today when Marta Jankowska linked me to a new issue of Global Health Action, which just published a special issue on death data collected and analyzed by the INDEPTH Network. They have research centers in Africa and Asia that aim to figure out the otherwise unknowable. Systems of vital registration are few and far between in much of Africa and Asia, so what we know about mortality comes from surveys and from the INDEPTH sites, along with questions about deaths of family members that have been inserted into recent population censuses. Unfortunately, as you can from the map below, none of the three Ebola-impacted countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, has an INDEPTH site, so we are even more ignorant than normal about what's going on in those places.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Nigeria's Own "Civil War" Displacing People

Although it has not been much in the headlines lately, Boko Haram is still at work in northeastern Nigeria, cutting a swath of disaster reminiscent of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. And those kidnapped schoolgirls have never been found. The Economist featured the story in its published version this week, but it isn't even highlighted on their website. 
In recent months the extreme Islamist group has taken over swathes of north-east Nigeria. It controls at least two dozen towns in Borno state and parts of the neighbouring states of Adamawa and Yobe. Gwoza, a hill town of almost half a million people, is the capital of its self-declared caliphate. Few outsiders dare to visit. A trader who recently returned after making a delivery approved by the militants described it as an abattoir after hours: “cold, calm and full of blood”.
The group routinely slaughters unbelievers as well as Muslims, establishing its writ through fear. In September a horde of insurgents fell on the verdant villages of Kubi and Watu in Adamawa state and torched more than 500 houses. Arriving in the early morning they spent the day looting and killing among scorched corrugated-iron roofs. Bodies were dismembered and left for vultures. The security forces never turned up. “We have not seen them in a long time,” says a surviving villager, Ahmed Huda. “We are alone.”
The insurgency has driven about a million people from their homes and may have killed 13,000 in the past five years. At a newly erected refugee camp in Yola, Adamawa’s capital, hundreds of children wait for food. Many have seen parents or siblings killed. “My mother was burned in our house,” says eight-year-old Ramin. “My brother tried to run but they forced him back inside.”
It seems to me that when horror of this magnitude is taking place in the 7th most populous nation in the world--projected to be the 3rd most populous by 2015--the world should be paying more attention. The only reason why it is apparently not a real civil war is that the government of Nigeria is not very serious about fighting back. While it is true that a million internally displaced people represent a small fraction of the country's estimated 183 million people, this is still a serious situation, with long-term demographic consequences that the rest of us are going to be dealing with.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Is Population Aging a Factor in Europe's Economic Woes?

The cover story in this week's Economist is about Europe's ailing economy. There is genuine fear of deflation and economic disaster should that happen. This thinking is widespread--not just confined to the pages of the Economist (see, for example, recent posts on Mauldin Economics). The situation is complex, like most things in the world, but this paragraph obviously caught my attention:
Since 2008 corporate investment in America, the euro zone and Japan has fallen short of cashflow, notes ISI Group, an investment-research provider, making firms net savers rather than borrowers. This reflects both subdued expectations about near term sales and a more deep seated belief that, as populations age, markets will shrink and good opportunities for investment will become rare. Rising inequality may aggravate the process: the rich save more than the poor. Efforts by emerging markets to hold down their currencies and plough the resulting trade surpluses into rich-world bond markets do further harm.
Two themes--population aging, and inequality--stand out here. But what really impressed me (in a negative way) was the idea that that population aging would lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. The inequality is an issue because the rich need to be spending their money (either directly or through higher taxes so that the government spends it for them) in order to help keep the economy going. But if you think the economy is going in the tank due to an agin population, then you save more and spend less, leading right into the outcome that you worried about. One of the dilemmas of population aging is lack of a youthful labor force to fill in the gaps left by those growing older. Yet, the Economist also notes that "roughly 45m workers are jobless in the rich OECD countries." This is crazy talk. Let's get that money moving, folks, so that we at least delay the negative effects of an aging population. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Two Different Approaches to Dealing With Ebola

The Ebola talk refuses to die down, with the news that an American physician, who had been working with Ebola patients in Guinea, came back to New York, rode the subway and went bowling, and then became ill. He and his fiancé are now in quarantine at Bellevue Hospital Center. A news anchor at NY1 in New York had some pithy advice to offer viewers after learning that the physician had been on the subway:
Ebola has officially come to our city, but that doesn't mean that New Yorkers — internationally hailed for being jaded assholes — will irrationally panic. But just to be safe, NY1 anchor Errol Louis has some salient advice for anyone hoping to avoid contracting Ebola from subway poles or bowling balls (which, by the way, is extremely unlikely).
Louis's advice basically boils down to: Do not eat feces. Really, if you think about it, it's great advice for any situation in your life. Should you buy that expensive outfit? Don't eat poop! Should you quit your job? Don't eat poop! Want to break up with your significant other? Seriously, don't eat poop.
Closer to the scene of the "action," questions have arisen about the way in which Cote d'Ivoire, which neighbors both Liberia and Guinea, is dealing with Ebola. For starters, back in August the country closed its borders to Liberia and Guinea, in order to reduce the likelihood of infected persons entering the country. For additional inside information, I today asked one of our PhD students, who is from Cote d'Ivoire, what he knew about the situation. He offered the story about a village in which several people known to be from Liberia were rounded up and deported, and he did not think that was the only case. So again, we have evidence that West African countries are trying to figure out how best to deal with the situation, especially since there is still little overt evidence of direct assistance from the rest of the world.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

How is Ghana Dealing with Ebola?

Thanks to Dr. Pollock for alerting me to a story on ABC News today discussing the situation of Liberians in Ghana--which is separated from Liberia by only one country (Côte d'Ivoire). It turns out that Ghana has a refugee camp in the Central Region, to the west of Accra, that was set up in 1990 by UNHCR to house refugees from the civil wars that ravaged the country between the mid-1980s and the mid-2000s. This camp--Budubaram--is one of three isolation centers in the center to which Liberians who arrive in Ghana are sent until they are able to find their way home.

Hundreds of Liberians are stranded in Ghana, separated from their families because of poverty, fear and logistics. Some are waiting for flights to resume after most airlines cancelled flights to Liberia. Others are having trouble navigating or affording the circuitous route back by bus. Many others feel it's too risky to return home, even if their spouses or children are desperately urging them to.
Ghana, which is still free of Ebola, has become the hub for an intensified international response to the crisis, with the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response based in Accra. Ghana is one of 14 West African counties seen as being at risk, and authorities have set up at least three Ebola isolation centers across the country in case there is an outbreak.
ABC News interviewed a Liberian Christian pastor named Boley:
Boley believes more than 500 Liberians — often jobless, broke and desperate for good news out of their country — are at the Buduburam camp, an unsanitary maze of tin-roofed shacks, tents and other makeshift structures. Many more are said to be sheltering in other parts of Ghana. When he is not walking about idly, Boley sits huddled among other men who talk quietly over cold drinks. In a crowded market in Buduburam's dusty grounds, women sell fresh vegetables, bottled honey and other goods. The area stinks of rotting garbage.
Boley had flown to Nigeria on Gambia Bird, but after he left that airline stopped flying to Liberia. While in Lagos, Nigeria, people avoided him after learning he was from Liberia, he said. Disinvited from the conference, he took a bus to Ghana, where border officials announced there was a possibly Ebola-infected Liberian in their company. People panicked, he said.
The only way he can return home is by taking another long bus trip through four countries, including Guinea and Sierra Leone. It would cost him at least $350, money he doesn't have. The most direct route, through Ivory Coast, is closed, and French-speaking Ivorian border officials are hostile toward Liberians, he said.
The point, though, is that West African countries are taking Ebola very seriously, and doing everything they can to contain it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Young and Restless

The New York Times and other media outlets were all over a nice demographic story that sort of erupted this week. The theme of the young and restless refers specifically to people aged 25-34 who are college graduates. They are potentially important to any city as sources of economic growth--well-educated young people working and spending their income locally, especially, as it turns out, in the older central cities (well, except Detroit). The analysis uses data from the 2000 census and from the 2012 American Community Survey and the report was put together by Joe Cortright, who just last week launched a new website called City Observatory, which is funded by the Knight Foundation.

I recommend reading the report in its original (downloadable from the City Observatory website), to avoid the huge question marks that kept going through my head as I read summaries in yesterday's NYTimes and a follow-up up in today's NYTimes. The problem is that the analysis is based on the percentage of a population that is both 25-34 and is a college graduate. The news reports focused on the percentage changes in those numbers, which are a little deceiving since they are dependent upon the size of the base--an increase from 10 to 15 is a 50 percent increase, whereas an increase from 100 to 105 (the same absolute increase) is only a 5 percent increase. The report goes through those complications pretty well, but it is not easy to boil down into a short news article.

What really struck me, though, was that everywhere in the country there has been an increase in the percentage of 25-34 year-olds who have a college degree, and this is driven especially by the increase in the number of women who are graduating from college. They are young, but also "restless" because the higher level of education encourages them to delay marriage and explore options in life. That is not only good economically, I have to think that it is good socially and culturally, as well.

Monday, October 20, 2014

How Scary is Ebola?

None of us really knows how afraid we should be of Ebola (or of any other emerging infectious disease). But two stories came across my radar screen today that warrant consideration. First, Dr. Rumbaut pointed me to a story in the New Republic, by a Distinguished Professor of Medicine at the University of Michigan, detailing the similarities between Ebola and the outbreak of cholera in 1892.
It’s been more than a hundred years, so a lot has changed. Medical science is much more advanced. The world is a more interconnected place. But there are some important parallels between now and then. In some respects—the fear of travelers carrying the disease, the intense criticism of public health authorities—things haven’t changed much at all.
Asiatic cholera was spread by body fluids—especially the copious diarrhea it produced to the point of dehydrating a grown man in a matter of hours. Indeed, to the nineteenth-century American, cholera was every bit as scary, deadly, and disgusting as Ebola fever is today. The cholera of 1892 had already decimated much of India, the Middle East, Asia, and Eastern Europe and shut down the port of Hamburg, the largest in the world. By August 30, New York City, the world’s second largest port, began to receive its first cholera victims, mostly impoverished Russian Jewish immigrants.
It’s probably true, for example, that in 1892 the 20-day quarantine helped by reducing the flow of immigrants and the overwhelming workload of medical inspection. But the quarantine also caused collateral damage—starting with the scapegoating of all Eastern European immigrants. Meanwhile, those of us who have studied the outbreak have concluded that it was not the quarantine that deserves most of the credit for containing the disease. It should go instead to public health officials in New York City and to the federal government. They worked aggressively to ensure that the water supply was not tainted with the cholera microbe—and used case tracing and isolation of the ill to keep the disease from spreading.
And then thanks to Dr. Pollock who linked us to a story in the Washington Post enumerating what we do and, more importantly, don't know about Ebola. One concern is whether or not a person could carry the Ebola virus without showing symptoms, and thus be a carrier of the disease like Typhoid Mary back in NYC in the 19th century. Fortunately, the answer seems to be no, although of course we don't know for sure. The evidence suggests that if you have the disease your viral load is very low until you start to show symptoms. The implication is that if you have the virus but have no symptoms, your are unlikely to spread the disease. Of course, that doesn't mean it can't happen, and that uncertainty is what feeds fear...

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Would Banning Flights From Africa Keep Ebola Out of the U.S.?

There have been a lot of calls from politicians and others in the U.S. for a ban on flights from West Africa as a way of keeping Ebola out of the country. This proposed strategy comes despite the fact that the one African-origin person bringing Ebola into the U.S. (Thomas Duncan from Liberia) came to the U.S. by way of Brussels, not directly from West Africa. As a not-infrequent traveler to West Africa, my sense has been that there really aren't that many direct flights, and Nate Silver has confirmed that:
There are no regularly scheduled direct flights to the U.S. from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone — and very few from other countries in West Africa. There are far more flights from West Africa to Western Europe instead. Duncan’s case was typical. Before arriving in the United States, he connected through Brussels. [see map below]

By contrast, there are hundreds of flights per week to Western Europe from these countries. Paris is the top destination, with a total of 79 flights per week (counting flights on one route that is currently suspended but which may become available again by January). London has 43 weekly flights (again, counting onesuspended route). Brussels and Frankfurt have 26 each.
There are also flights from Africa to the Gulf States, from which connections can be made to the U.S. So, a travel ban is not going to make any sense. On the other hand, every country should carefully scrutinize any passenger whose trip originated in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea and make sure that the person has no symptoms. That is a global policy that does make sense.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Should You Get Married?

Thanks to Justin Stoler for pointing me to a piece that aired on NPR a couple of days ago discussing the trend among younger women in the U.S. to have kids without necessarily thinking about marriage. Sadly, of course, this is not a new story. Indeed, the NPR report draws largely from a story in the NY Times from February 2012, and which I commented on at the time. My view then, as now, is that if unmarried women could really raise their children as successfully as married women, then this would not be an issue. The evidence suggests otherwise, however. The odds are stacked against you if your parents chose not to marry and you are raised solely by your mother. Of course, you may succeed in the face of those odds, but it's going to be harder. This was exactly the message of Isabel Sawhill's book, Generation Unbound, which I commented on a few days ago. Indeed, when I saw the NPR article, I just assumed that it was building on Sawhill's book, yet there was no mention of it. 

I also thought of Sawhill's book when my wife and I were watching the British cop show Scott & Bailey, in which the leads are female detectives working in Manchester, UK. This was an older episode (season 2, episode 7) in which they investigate the murder of a local teenage gang member who, as it turns out, has twice gotten a young girl pregnant. She was the one who murdered him, as it turns out, but the cops comment on the show that using condoms would have avoided a lot of disaster. That's an extreme case, to be sure, but it gets at Sawhill's message, except that she believes in the IUD, since it is less prone to error.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

High-Tech Methods to Track Ebola

Washington, DC was abuzz with Ebola discussions today. There was a Congressional hearing on the topic, with members of Congress generally asking some pretty good questions of CDC officials, a Texas hospital administrator and the top person at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And President Obama was on the news talking about the possibility of a travel ban from Africa (not likely in his view). In the meantime, others are figuring out the way forward, including using cell phone activity and satellite images to track new Ebola cases in West Africa, in order to know where to mobilize resources. 
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is tracking the approximate locations of cell phone users in West Africa who dial emergency call centers in an effort to predict the onset and spread of Ebola outbreaks.
“The data is just the number of calls by cell tower, but from that you can get a rough idea of the area that the calls are coming in from, and then derive census, neighborhood data from that,” CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund told Nextgov on Thursday. 
Satellites can help by offering a very high-level view of the threat. A sudden Ebola outbreak could be indicated, for instance, by an unusually crowded hospital parking lot as viewed from space, Nextgov's sister publication Defense One reported last month.
Just as satellite imagery showed Russian forces massing along the Ukrainian border, high-resolution images from low Earth orbit can offer a glimpse of where and when more sick people are seeking treatment.
My geography colleague here at SDSU, Dr. Ming Tsou is deeply into the use of social media for these  kinds of public purposes., in work that is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Under a partnership between San Diego State University and the county, officials will enlist 1,000 Twitter users in San Diego County as volunteers with the goal of making emergency warnings go viral.
Influential Twitter users who have a lot of followers will be asked to re-tweet important announcements when the county Office of Emergency Services is trying to broadcast alerts or news updates. Researchers will track how successful the volunteers are in getting the word out to large numbers of people.
Tsou, who directs SDSU’s Center for Human Dynamics in the Mobile Age, is doing research into the ways people use social media to communicate about breaking news such as natural disasters, disease outbreaks, road closures and evacuation notices. His research is focused on finding out how people disseminate information in different situations and figuring out why some information goes viral while some does not.
Going viral, of course, is not necessarily a good thing... 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Can We Contain Ebola?

Without any doubt, the scary part of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) is how lethal it is. Yahoo news indicated that WHO was reporting a newly revised case fatality rate of 70%, although today's update from WHO puts the number at 50% (4493 deaths so far out of "8997 confirmed, probable, and suspected cases of Ebola virus disease (EVD) seven affected countries (Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Spain, and the United States of America) up to the end of 12 October." This puts the disease on the same lethal footing as the bubonic plague and even more deadly than the "Spanish" flu that was a global pandemic in 1918.

Ebola is controllable, but only with concerted efforts (as have, in fact, occurred in Nigeria, where an outbreak was halted in its tracks). Thanks to Dr. Peter Pollock, I have been alerted to a group at Northeastern University in Boston who are trying to track the progress of the disease, so that we can all be kept alert to the danger. Indeed, recognizing the danger and protecting yourself as much as you can is an important part of controlling the virus's spread. Temporarily quarantining people who have potentially been exposed is a wise policy, as well, no matter how oppressive that may seem. Indeed, you might recall that Ellis Island is an island precisely so that passengers into the US could be quarantined if they were sick.

At ground zero, in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, it is hard to imagine the societal devastation that the disease will cause down the road, given the relatively weak world response thus far to stopping the spread there. These are countries with already high death rates and high birth rates, and a preponderance of young people. They are already short on health resources and economic well-being, and Ebola will set these countries back in the way that HIV has set back eastern and southern Sub-Saharan Africa.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Stayin' Alive--A Little Bit Longer

The news is pretty much 24/7 worry about Ebola (more on that tomorrow). Lost in the scare (and it is right to be worried about any disease with a 70% case fatality rate), was the latest update on mortality statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control. It was sufficiently lost that I found out only because Professor Rumbaut pointed it out to me today! The news coverage showed up in a NY Times story somewhat grandiosely titled "A Leap in Lifespans." The story is really about increases in life expectancy, not changes in lifespan (and if you have read Chapter 5 of my book, you understand the key difference). Rubén Rumbaut offers the suggestion that since the author's name is Paula Span, she may have a preference for that terminology.

In all events, the story is that based on U.S. mortality data for 2012 (the latest date available), life expectancy has been increasing at all ages in the U.S. The CDC noted, in particular, the life expectancy at age 65. For women (all race/ethnic groups combined), it is now 20.5 years, whereas for men it is 17.9, as you can see in the graph below. Ms. Span notes in her article that this is a big rise from the numbers back in 1960, when someone aged 65 in 2012 was in their early teens. Back then, a 65-year (both sexes combined) could expect to live another 14.4 years, compared to 19.3 in 2012. And, to be sure, each year you stay alive, the older will your expected age at death be. The CDC has not yet published the life tables lying behind this story (the latest online are for 2009), but my own latest calculations, which are for 2010 and are in the soon-to-be released 12th edition, show that a woman aged 65 in the US in 2010 could expect to live an additional 20.3 years (10 weeks less than the figure for 2012 shown above), implying an expected age at death of 85.3. However, if she survived to age 75--assuming no improvement in mortality--she could expect to live 13.0 years more, implying an expected age at death of 88.0.

Another good piece of news is that the gap in life expectancy by race and ethnicity is narrower at the older ages than it is at the younger ages. "Statistics from 2011 show that among 65-year-olds, life expectancy was 20.7 years on average for Hispanics, 19.2 years for whites and 18 years for blacks." These numbers remind us that the influx of Hispanics into the U.S. has actually helped to increase life expectancy at the national level. That's a good thing, because life expectancy in the U.S. remains lower than in Canada or Australia, or anywhere in northern, western, or southern Europe. Our health care system is far and away the most expensive in the world, but it is far from being the most effective at keeping people alive.

Monday, October 13, 2014

US State Department's Humanitarian Information Unit

I was very pleased to learn today that Dr. Debbie Fugate (one of my former PhD students) is now Chief of the US State Department's Humanitarian Information Unit and Senior Advisor to The Geographer (who is Dr. Lee Schwartz). She is right in the middle of very important and useful geospatial and spatial demographic analyses, trying to help everyone in this country get a handle on events around the globe. Check out this set of maps summarizing the conflict coming out of Syria (and, see map below). They are also supporting analyses of the outbreak of Ebola. And here's a very cool online mapping tool: MapGive.  Check it all out.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Work Long and Save--The Key to Aging Societies

The lamentation in every society that has an aging population is--how are we going to afford all of these older people? Now, setting aside the youthful bias that somehow people become useless old fogies as they age, societies do have to cope with the very welcome benefits of higher life expectancy, accompanied by a drop in the birth rate that means, in the aggregate, that we are less likely as a species to outrun our resources. Between this week's Economist and today's New York Times, we have stories that provide, in the rough, the answers to the question. The Economist reports on a conference held at the London School of Economics last month that addressed some of these issues [side note--I was at a Conference at LSE last month on the topic of health inequalities and I cannot find any reference to a conference dealing with aging per se--but I digress]. The main point is that workers need to stay in the labor force longer, as I have noted before. Interestingly enough, one suggestion was that the young-old should stay in the labor force longer in order to help care for the old-old. This also means that people continue to pay into health care schemes for longer, thus lowering the tax burden on the younger workers. The alternative is to bring in low-wage immigrants to take those jobs, and that is not always viewed favorably.
Those elderly voters who are tempted to vote for anti-immigrant parties may want to pause; some day soon they may be dependent on the kindness of strangers.
A closely related question is about pensions (whereas the health care costs are separate) and the NY Times reviews the Dutch pension system in which people are paying into a pension plan designed to give them 70% of their salary when they retire.
Imagine a place where pensions were not an ever-deepening quagmire, where the numbers told the whole story and where workers could count on a decent retirement.
Imagine a place where regulators existed to make sure everyone followed the rules. 
That place might just be the Netherlands. And it could provide an example for America’s troubled cities, or for states like Illinois and New Jersey that have promised more in pension benefits than they can deliver. 
Accomplishing this feat — solid workplace pensions for most citizens — isn’t easy. For one thing, it’s expensive. Dutch workers typically sock away nearly 18 percent of their pay, most of it in diversified, professionally run pension funds. That compares with 16.4 percent for American workers, but most of that is for Social Security, which is intended to provide just 40 percent of a middle-class worker’s income in retirement.
The key is an honest and open accounting of how much is needed and where the money is going. This is not an easy thing to accomplish, as the story notes. Furthermore, the goals of the young (investment growth through risk) and the older population (preserving wealth) are not always compatible. But, as the story notes, every country needs to have a public debate about these issues.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Spatial Demographics of Turkey versus ISIS

ISIS is currently taking over the Syrian town of Kobani (aka Ayn al-Arab) that sits right on Turkey's southern border, yet the government of Turkey has been reluctant to do anything about it. The reasons are as complex as everything else about the mess in Syria, but spatial demographics certainly play a role. A quick look at any map shows you that the southwestern half of Turkey borders the Aegean Sea, but the southeastern half of Turkey shares a land border with Syria and Iraq. The region of northern Syria, northern Iraq, and southwestern Turkey is predominantly Kurdish (who represent about 20 percent of the population of Turkey), as the map below from the Washington Post illustrates:

The Kurds are predominantly Sunni Muslims, as are almost all Turks and are the members of ISIS, so religion is not the issue. Rather, it is what we tend to think of as ethnicity. Kurds are not Turks, nor are they Arabs (which is mostly what ISIS is), but are ethnically related to Persians and speak a language that is neither Turkish nor Arabic. And, they have high the highest fertility rates in Turkey, as the map below shows (taken from an excellent paper by Orguz Isik and M. Melih Pinarcioglu, "Geographies of a Silent Transition: A Geographically Weighted Regression Approach to Regional Fertility Differences in Turkey,” European Journal of Population 22:399-421, 2006.
The Kurdish southeastern corner of Turkey has not only high fertility, but high levels of illiteracy, and relatively low levels of female employment. It is, in other words, a very different place from western Turkey, where Istanbul is located and where people are likely to have in mind when they think of Turkey. And, as we know all too well throughout the world, differences can (and often will) be used against you. The Kurds have been discriminated against throughout the region, but are sufficiently different even among themselves that they have been unable to create a unified group.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

USAID Funds Programs in Latin America to Keep Kids There--Do They Work?

Although the surge of unaccompanied minor children from Central America to the US has simmered down, it has not disappeared. More importantly, the reasons why kids want to leave Central America have not changed much--at least not yet. To its credit, the US government has stepped up with money spread around the region to create programs for kids that, with luck, may give them a better life than either being in a gang or trying to avoid being killed by a gang. Are they working? Well, let's just say that it seems to be a slow start, as my PhD student, Elizabeth Kennedy, pointed out on tonight's PBS NewsHour. Afterwards, she was concerned that she came off as more critical than she really is of these programs--after all, something is betting than nothing, and everything needs to be seen in context. But we should not just sit back and assume that pumping a few million dollars into neighborhood programs in places like San Salvador will automatically solve deep-rooted problems. Indeed, these problems are rooted in the US drug market and criminal justice system as much as they are rooted in the dysfunction of Central American societies.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Are Syrians Being Quarantined?

As the Islamic State continues to gobble up towns in Syria and northern Iraq, the plight of ordinary people--especially in Syria--has gone from bad to horrible. There are now 3 million registered refugees who have fled the country, according to the United Nations, but avenues of escape seem to be closing down. If you are in Syria, where can you go? The neighbors are Iraq (and many there are trying to flee), Israel (that's not likely to happen), Lebanon (which already hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees, Turkey (which has been very reluctant to accept any more refugees--especially if they are Kurds, and Jordan. The latter also already has a lot of refugees, and the New York Times reports today that there are signs (not confirmed by officials) that the border into Jordan has essentially been closed off to new refugees.
Jordan is refusing to let Syrian refugees cross the border, international refugee agencies said on Wednesday, expressing fear that thousands have been left stranded with limited access to food and other supplies.
“We have not recorded any Syrian refugees crossing into Jordan in the past week,” said Andrew Harper, the top official with the United Nations refugee agency in Jordan.
The International Organization for Migration concurred, saying that no Syrians had been transported from the border area to refugee camps in Jordan since Oct. 1, when 44 Syrians crossed over.
The explanation offered is that since Jordan has joined the battle against ISIS, there is concern that terrorists will mingle with the refugees and create serious security issues. This seems like a reasonable response on Jordan's part and it is not clear how this will play out.

One demographic detail in the New York Times report is of particular note: "More than three million Syrians, half of them children, have fled the country’s civil war to neighboring countries." Indeed, the UN data suggest that 52 percent of refugees are under the age of 18, even though about 33 of Syria's population prior to the civil war was under the age of 18. This suggest the clear strategy of families trying to save the children. Those who acted the quickest may be the only ones able to do that, if the implicit quarantine of Syria continues.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Women Having a Second Child--The Key to Europe's Future?

It is well-known that fertility levels have fallen below replacement level throughout Europe and this causes a lot of alarm with respect to the future possibility of population decline in the region. The evidence suggests that the drop in fertility is due less to an increase in childlessness than it is to a decline in the proportion of women who have a second or third child. Thus, European women have not stopped having children, they have just stopped having very many of them. If fertility were to rise in the future, then, it would seem to depend on the motivation for that second or third child. Demographers from the Estonian Institute for Population Studies have just published a very interesting paper in Demographic Research analyzing data from differing regions of Europe to figure out the relationship, in particular, between education and the probability of having a second child. Demographic theory generally suggests that the opportunity costs of children rise with education and so the demand for children goes down--a negative relationship. But at very low levels of fertility it seems that the relationship may reverse itself, at least in some countries. The map below, drawn from the paper, shows considerable spatial variability in Europe (with darker shades associated with lower odds of a second birth), and the authors summarize their results as follows:
...the behaviour of highly educated women seems to be decisive for a region‘s level of second-order and overall fertility. In areas where university-educated women have lower second-birth intensity than women with medium and low education, fertility tends to be lower. The mechanism of opportunity costs, advanced by the micro-economic and adopted by the Second Demographic Transition theory, suggests that the observed variation in educational gradient may be due to contextual features such as institutional support for combining employment career and parenthood, as well as gender equity.
In other words, in European regions with traditional marriages that punish women's out-of-home employment, better educated women wind up having fewer children than the less-well educated, and the result is lower than average national levels of fertility. By contrast, more "modern" egalitarian marital regimes produce support for women and that generates higher fertility among the better educated and higher overall national fertility. If higher fertility is the goal, it is becoming increasingly obvious what the appropriate policies are--educate women, promote gender equality, and provide support networks to working parents.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Family as a Source of Inequality--Drifters vs. Planners

Isabel Sawhill, a highly regarded and widely published economist at The Brookings Institution, has just published a new book on the economics of the family that has been getting a lot of well-deserved publicity. Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage looks at what is happening in the U.S., diagnoses the problem, and offers a solution. The problem is that a large fraction of children in the U.S. are growing up in poverty in a household that does not include their father. These kids are at a huge disadvantage relative to other children, and this helps to drive at least some the growing income inequality that we observe in this country. Before you say, wait a minute, it is income inequality that creates this problem in the first place, listen to what Sawhill argues, here summarized by The Economist:
At the top of the social scale, a more egalitarian version of traditional marriage is still going strong. Nearly 90% of university-educated mothers get married before having their first child—typically to an equally brainy, high-earning man. Such unions are durable and provide an excellent launchpad for children, who are showered with love and stimulation and grow up to do well in school and the workplace. These are the "planners."
Among non-graduate mothers, however, 58% of first births are out of wedlock. And although half of unmarried mothers are still living with the father when the baby is born (and another third are romantically involved with him but living apart), only a third of these couples are still intact by the time the child turns five. By contrast, four-fifths of married couples are still together at this point.
Scholars on the left tend to blame poverty for family breakdown. Ms Sawhill finds this too glib. Families were much poorer in the 1950s, but they stuck together. Unskilled men’s wages have fallen in recent decades, but not by much. This “cannot explain more than a small fraction” of the change at the bottom. On the contrary, the nuclear family is an effective way out of poverty. A child born in the bottom fifth has an 83% chance of escaping it if his parents remain married, compared with 50% if they were never wed.
Much of the problem is cultural, argues Ms Sawhill. The “feminist revolution seems to have bypassed low-income men.” Male university graduates largely treat their wives as equals; less educated men often don’t. They cannot accept not being master of the household, even if they earn less than their female partner. Increasingly, they opt out of parental responsibilities almost entirely. These are the "drifters."
And the solution? Truly effective birth control--especially the IUD (very popular in China, but not so much in the US) or implants--to reduce unintended pregnancies and allow men and women to plan their lives, rather than drifting into miserable adulthood and dragging the children along with them.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Can We Have Both Domestic and Global Income Equality?

This week the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a think-tank in Paris, came out with a report titled How Was Life? Global Well-Being Since 1820. The past two centuries capture the major parts of the demographic transition and the economic transformation of the world and the OECD study attempts to track the income inequality within nations during that time, and also the income inequality between nations. The story has some twists and turns, but as the Economist notes, there is a disturbing lesson in here when it comes to inequality. First, though, the good news:
For the most part, the findings confirm what is suspected, if not known in such detail. The number of years in education has increased everywhere. Average heights have risen almost everywhere (by 1.1cm more in America in 1820-1990 than in China). The purchasing power of construction workers’ wages has grown everywhere, though in Britain the rise was tenfold in 1820-2000; in Indonesia it was only twice.
Now, the less good news:
The study uses the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality in which zero represents perfect equality—everyone has the same income—and 100 perfect inequality—one person has everything. The global Gini rose from 49 in 1820 to 66 in 2000. But this was not caused by widening disparities between rich and poor within countries (inequality in its usual sense). Inequality of that sort fluctuated for 130 years to 1950, before falling sharply in 1950-1980, in what the report calls an egalitarian revolution. Since 1980 it has risen again (as Thomas Piketty, a French economist, has shown), back to the level of 1820.
As globalization increased throughout the 19th century, income inequality within nations tended to increase. But, the report argues that globalization ebbed between 1914 and 1970 and during that period of time: countries had more freedom to steer domestic policies and used it to narrow differences between rich and poor. As globalisation spread again after 1980, the opposite happened: “globalisation contributed to higher income inequality within countries,” the report concludes, “while at the same time leading to a decline of income inequality between countries.”
Thus history suggests that trends in global and domestic income inequality move in opposite directions. As we globalize, domestic income inequality increases and vice-versa. From this follows the conclusion (speculative, to be sure) that when globalization slows down, we can get back to the business of creating less unequal income distributions within nations. If you have read my book, you know my view that globalization in the modern era is associated especially with population growth in developing nations, so when that stops, the world may get back to the business of improving well-being for everyone, not just an elite few.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Getting Real About Ebola

My two favorite TV programs are the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report (for which Jon Stewart serves as Executive Producer). The genre is sometimes called "fake news" and they are on the Comedy Channel, after all. But both programs regularly hit the news on the head like no one else. Last night's Daily Show did this with Ebola--putting it into perspective in a way that is both thought-provoking and mind-blowing. You have to watch it for yourself.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Global Housing Gap--Another Sign of Inequality

Housing the world's growing population is not easy. Keeping track of this is the job of UNHabitat:
Rapid urbanization places remarkable strain on housing and serviced land. By 2030, about 3 billion people, or about 40 per cent of the world’s population, will need proper housing and access to basic infrastructure and services such as water and sanitation systems. This translates into the need to complete 96,150 housing units per day with serviced and documented land from now till 2030.

In some cities, up to 80 per cent of the population lives in slums. Fifty-five million new slum dwellers have been added to the global population since 2000. Sub-Saharan Africa has a slum population of 199.5 million, South Asia 190.7 million, East Asia 189.6 million, Latin America and the Caribbean 110.7 million, Southeast Asia 88.9 million, West Asia 35 million and North Africa 11.8 million.
 But, what to do? That's a tougher issue, and Bloomberg News reports that the global consulting firm of McKinsey & Co is actually thinking about this.
Replacing the world’s substandard housing and building affordable alternatives to meet future global demand would cost as much as $11 trillion, according to initial findings in a McKinsey & Co. report.

About 330 million households -- about 1.2 billion people -- now struggle with substandard housing, a number that may increase to 440 million in 11 years, McKinsey forecasts. Acceptable housing is within an hour’s commute of work and has basic services including flush toilets and running water, the report says.

In Lagos and Bombay, two of the world’s fastest-growing cities, the issue of inadequate housing is particularly grim as both emerging metropolises are poverty-ridden. There, the affordable-housing gap amounts to more than 10 percent of each city’s economic output.

The deficit presents an opportunity for construction companies -- with some of largest markets in emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil and Russia. Mortgage lenders also stand to benefit; by 2025, the market for affordable-home loans could be worth as much as $400 billion a year, the report said.
The point is important. If governments cannot afford to house their populations--or prefer instead to send a rocket to Mars--maybe the private sector can step in. The missing ingredient in this formula, however, is how these people who cannot currently afford a decent place to live will in the future be able to do that. That problem of income inequality keeps coming back to bite us.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Biodemography--Learning About Ourselves By Studying Other Animals

The National Research Council just published a volume on "Sociality, Hierarchy, Health: Comparative Biodemography: Papers from a Workshop." Now, I admit that this is unlikely to lead to a hit series on HBO, but it really is fascinating. The major takeaway is that humans are not the only species in which we find a social gradient in health. Higher status animals routinely have better health and typically live longer than those at the bottom of the hierarchy. And, yes, most animal species have these social gradients--this is not something unique to humans. The first chapter in the volume is by Maxine Weinstein, Hillard Kaplan, and Meredith A. Lane, who nicely summarize the volume, but I especially like some of the comments in the final chapter by Michael G. Marmot and Robert Sapolsky. For example, one might well speculate that low social rank is caused by poor health, rather than things being the other way around. However, longitudinal studies of baboons suggests that...
While poor health can certainly lead to low social rank, the longitudinal data in these studies demonstrate that the pathophysiological correlates of subordination follow, rather than precede, the establishment of a rank. We argue that, as with the human health gradient, this rank/health link is mostly psychosocial in nature.
This is partly because the social gradient in health exists in high and low mortality societies, suggesting that it has little to do with the amount of food, for example, or the gene pool of the species. Studying non-humans helps us to understand humans.
One clear advantage of studying nonhuman primates is their very nonhumanness. Many of the candidates put forward to explain health inequalities in humans simply are not seen in other species. Baboons don’t smoke, eat fast foods, or have differential access to health care depending on ability to pay. A stressed primate, however, will have similar physiological responses to those of a stressed human. There is insight to be gained not only in understanding the biological pathways by which social position affects health, but also in understanding the circumstances under which these
physiological responses are evoked. They lend credence to our claim that psychosocial factors play a major role in generating the social gradient in health.
The bottom line for humans and non-humans is that context matters. You cannot understand health just by studying individuals. You have to put them into context. Indeed, an important part of that context is inequality. Greater inequality may be bad for your health, not just your pocketbook--unless of course you are in the top 1 percent.