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:

Sunday, January 31, 2016

What's Happening to Unaccompanied Minor Children Entering Europe?

From Europe today came yet another horrific story related to the refugee flow into the region. There may be 10,000 unaccompanied minor children who are missing. BBC News has the report:
More than 10,000 migrant children may have disappeared after arriving in Europe over the past two years, the EU's police intelligence unit says. Europol said thousands of vulnerable minors had vanished after registering with state authorities. It warned of children and young people being forced into sexual exploitation and slavery by criminal gangs.
Save the Children says some 26,000 child migrants arrived in Europe last year without any family. It is the first time Europol has given a Europe-wide estimate of how many might be missing.
The story notes that some of these missing kids may have been united with family members, but the fear is that many of them have fallen into the hands of human traffickers and other kinds of gangs. It seems that by law even child migrants are allowed out of the reception centers during the day and some use the opportunity to run away--and that probably doesn't end well for a lot of them.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) spokesman Leonard Doyle told the BBC the figure of 10,000 missing children was "shocking but not surprising". He said it was "to be expected" that many of these would be caught up in exploitation. "Let's hope now the EU puts the resources into finding these children, helping them and reuniting these children with their families."

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Controlling the Zika Virus Means Controlling Mosquitos

The Zika virus has stunned the world over the past couple of weeks, as I have already noted. There are still a lot of questions about how it spread from Africa to Brazil and why it it taking off as it appears to be. The key to its spread, though, is that infected persons must be bitten by the type of mosquito that carries it (the Aedes aegypti), although there is some circumstantial evidence that it could also be transmitted through sexual intercourse. Assuming that the mosquito is the real issue, then controlling mosquitos is obviously the way to control the spread of the disease. This week the Economist reminds us that Brazil had done a pretty good job of getting rid of mosquitos back in the 1950s, but success led to complacency and the mosquito population has bounced back, with horrific consequences for at least some of the Zika virus victims.
Brazil was declared free of A. aegypti in 1958, after a campaign that included regular fumigation and visits to ensure households got rid of standing water, where mosquitoes like to breed. Since then, the insect has bounced back. Might the fear of Zika help finish the job properly this time?
As another article in the Economist points out, mosquito eradication, while expensive, is clearly a better solution to the problem than telling women not to get pregnant. At the same time, countries all over the world need to monitor visitors from Brazil, in the same way that visitors from West Africa were monitored for Ebola. The map below, published by the Economist, compiles data on visitors from Brazil to other parts of the hemisphere and to Europe. The numbers are very large, and bound to explode as we get nearer to the summer Olympics to be held in Brazil. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

European Backlash Against Refugees

Maybe everyone is getting cranky because it's the middle of winter. I don't know. But we do know that this week has seen several stories out of Europe suggesting a clear backlash against the onslaught of refugees from Syria. A couple of days ago, the Danish parliament passed a law allowing Danish officials to confiscate cash and other assets from refugees as sort of a down payment on how much they will cost the Danish taxpayers. 
Under the new Danish law, police will be allowed to search asylum seekers on arrival in the country and confiscate any non-essential items worth more than 10,000 kroner (£1,000) that have no sentimental value to their owner.
Then yesterday Sweden announced that it might be expelling as many as 80,000 asylum seekers, clearly trying to send a signal to would-be travelers that the reception in Sweden might be icier than they expected.
The interior ministry has called on police and migration authorities to prepare for a sharp increase in deportations, and to arrange charter flights to expel refused asylum seekers to their country of origin. Sweden is also approaching other EU countries, including Germany, to discuss cooperation to increase efficiency and make sure flights are filled to capacity, it said.
On Thursday Finland’s interior minister said Helsinki also intended to expel about 20,000 of the 32,000 asylum seekers it received in 2015. “In principle we speak of about two-thirds, meaning approximately 65 percent of the 32,000 will get a negative decision (to their asylum application),” Paivi Nerg, the ministry’s administrative director, told Agence France-Presse.
Sweden received more than 160,000 asylum applications last year – by far the biggest influx in the EU as a proportion of the population. Between 60,000 and 80,000 of them will be rejected, the interior minister, Anders Ygeman, told Swedish media on Thursday.
People wouldn't reach Scandinavia, of course, if their progress was halted farther south. So, Greece gets the blame for not doing that, since Greece has become the major entry point for people taking off from Turkey and heading in small boats to the Greek shoreline.
The European Union authorities on Wednesday raised pressure on Greece to step up its efforts to slow the flow of migrants and tighten control of the bloc’s external borders, the first step in a process that would allow some countries to its north to extend their border controls for up to two years.
Valdis Dombrovskis, a vice president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, said that Greece was “seriously neglecting its obligations” by failing to properly register and fingerprint migrants. That conclusion led the commission to file a report to member states detailing “persistent and serious deficiencies” by Greece at controlling its borders.
In the meantime, the talks aimed at finding a resolution to the Syrian conflict are themselves in conflict, so the refugee crisis is not going to end anytime soon. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What's to Become of Today's Younger Generation?

This week's Economist has a special section on the problem of youth unemployment all over the globe. There are a lot of familiar people quoted in the story, and too much detail to cover in one blog session, but let me hit some highlights:
This report takes a global view, since 85% of young people live in developing countries, and focuses on practical matters, such as education and jobs. And it will argue that the young are an oppressed minority, held back by their elders. They are unlike other oppressed minorities, of course. Their “oppressors” do not set out to harm them. On the contrary, they often love and nurture them. Many would gladly swap places with them, too.
Every single generation of humans has likely been "oppressed" by the elders. This is the nature of social control, in which the older generation tries to keep society from changing too much. 
In some respects the young have never had it so good. They are richer and likely to live longer than any previous generation.
Yet much of their talent is being squandered. In most regions they are at least twice as likely as their elders to be unemployed. Over 25% of youngsters in middle-income nations and 15% in rich ones are NEETs: not in education, employment or training.
These are the kinds of generalizations that require more explanation. I don't have time to do this  research myself, but my guess is that the biggest issue is relative cohort size. In countries where the younger cohort is larger than the older cohort, the demands on the economy to keep growing in order to create ever more jobs may well be beyond societal resources. This is the problem of sustainability. Can we continue to have more people every year, and have them all be better off than before? The realistic answer is maybe not. We are in historically uncharted territory. 

The author of the special report, Robert Guest, is an economist promoting free market capitalism as a solution to problems and I don't have a problem with that in general. But, the ubiquity of income inequality--called out just before the last two Davos meetings by OxFam--is a barrier. Humans living in societies need to share resources if everyone is to thrive. The concentration of too much income and wealth anywhere--whether by the government or private firms--is deleterious to the human condition. I thought of this recently when Paul Ryan became Speaker of the US House of Representatives. His family's wealth as a private road construction firm came heavily from the government paying to have roads built. That is the type of resource sharing that most countries are currently not doing, and that is where the "oppression" lies. If we get back on that track, everyone--young and old--will be better off.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Zika Virus Hits El Salvador--Government Advises Women Not to Get Pregnant

The zika virus has emerged from the shadows to be really scary, mainly for pregnant women, as a I noted a couple of days ago. Brazil was the first to be noticed on this, but a story in today's NYTimes suggests that on a per person basis, El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America may actually be harder hit.
With at least 5,000 cases of Zika in a nation of six million, more than 1,500 in the last month alone, the government has been scrambling for solutions. It has dispatched teams of fumigators and treated water supplies to combat the Aedes mosquito, which also carries diseases like dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya.
But the government has also suggested to women that they delay pregnancy for two years!
But El Salvador’s advice to stop having children for two full years struck many experts as particularly sweeping, leaving them to wonder when else a nation has tried to halt its birthrate in the face of an epidemic. 
“I can tell you that I have never read, heard or encountered a public request like that,” said David Bloom, a professor of economics and demography at the Harvard School of Public Health. 
If El Salvador’s advice sounds like a cry for help, critics say, that’s because it is.
Despite the fact that the country is largely Roman Catholic, birth control is widespread. Data summarized by PRB show that an estimated 72% of married women are already using contraception, and the fertility rate has dropped to replacement level. Gang violence, economic uncertainty and a lot of out-migration have contributed to women already deciding to limit the number of children. It is, of course, unlikely that a large number of women will heed the government's advice, but time will tell... 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Bad Business in Burundi

Burundi is a relatively small (11 million people) East African country that has had more internal war than peace in the years since independence from Belgium in 1962. It is one of the very poorest countries in the world, with a very high fertility rate (6.2 children per woman), accompanied by high infant and child mortality, high maternal mortality, and overall high mortality. Regular conflict between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi populations does not help any of this. However, the latest conflict began last year (April 2015) when the current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced that he was running for a third term and then was re-elected, despite the fact that the country's constitution prohibits a third term. Reuters reported yesterday that the UN and the African Union want to send peace-keeping troops in, but the Burundi government is thus far resisting that. In the meantime, more than 200,000 Burundians have been displaced, some internally and some as refugees in neighboring countries.

The U.S. State Department's Humanitarian Information Unit has been monitoring the demographic situation there, and recently produced a map (see below) detailing the current state of affairs. At this moment, it is difficult to tell how this is going to play out, but it is unlikely to improve the lives of people in Burundi or the neighboring countries.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Virus Known as Zika Comes Out of Nowhere

Yikes! I don't know about you, but I had never heard of the zika virus until this week. It is rare enough that the computer's spelling autocorrect feature makes it very hard even to type it. But this is serious stuff, causing potential birth defects in children of mothers who have the virus during pregnancy. BBCNews reports that Brazil has been especially hard hit.
Brazil says the number of babies born with suspected microcephaly or abnormally small heads since October has now reached nearly 4,000. 
In the worst affected area, about 1% of newborns have suspected microcephaly [a smaller than normal heads, which may produce a variety of lifetime deficits for the child]. 
The Brazilian authorities believe the increase is caused by an outbreak of Zika virus. Just 150 babies were born with microcephaly in 2014. 
The brain condition can be deadly or cause intellectual disability and developmental delays.
The virus is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also spreads dengue and chikungunya. A background story from BBC indicates that the disease was first identified in Uganda in 1947, so it too is out of Africa, just like Ebola and a lot of diseases, along with all humans. It is not clear yet why this popped up so suddenly in Brazil late last year, and is now spreading in the region.

This problem with this particular mosquito is that it tends to be out during the day, so bednets (used against malaria-carrying mosquitos) are less useful. It is much more difficult to avoid being bitten. As a consequence, governments throughout Latin America are encouraging women to postpone pregnancies. So, it will be interesting to monitor contraceptive utilization and birth rates in Latin America over the next year or two.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Surprising Immigrant Origins of Indian Restaurants in England

My wife and I stopped eating meat 27 years ago, shortly after getting our first German Shepherd. We weren't trying to save the planet (although it would help tremendously if all of us stopped eating meat), nor were we doing it for health reasons (although most of us would be healthier with less meat in the diet). We did it for animal rights reasons, and I encourage you to do the same. That same year, our older son, John, began his M.Phil. studies at Oxford University. That encouraged us to get to the UK more often and now we were looking for restaurants where we could expect to find vegetarian dishes. Indian restaurants fit the bill, since the majority of Indians are Hindu and Hindus are vegetarian, and so over the years we have eaten in a lot of what the British call "curry houses," that first became popular  there in the 1930s and 40s.

But here's the interesting thing about that. Most Indian restaurants in the UK were not started up by Hindus from what we now think of as India, but rather by immigrants from Bangladesh (which, along with Pakistan, separated rather violently from India in 1971). This all came to light in an article in the Financial Times  a couple of weeks ago.
The menu in a British curry house is richly evocative of the history of the Indian subcontinent. Biryani was refined from the Persian pilau by the kitchens of the Mughal emperor Akbar, who reigned from 1556 to 1605. Vindaloo first appeared in 1797 when Britain invaded Portuguese Goa [a city on the western coast of India]; the dish is a mispronunciation of the Portuguese carne de vinho e alhos, or meat cooked with wine vinegar and garlic. The rogan josh and dopiaza (“two onions”) were both also originally Persian, while madras curry was a colonial invention, after English merchants arrived in Chennai in 1640.
But modern British curry-house owners have a narrower lineage: 80 per cent to 90 per cent can trace their roots directly to Sylhet, a city of about 500,000 people which lies in the east of Bangladesh and borders the Indian region of Assam. [See map below] Sylhet is not known for its cuisine: its most distinctive speciality, says Lizzie Collingham, the author of Curry: A Biography, is its dried punti fish, hung from rafters and surrounded by flies until it is ground into a deep red fermented paste.
Nor were the Sylhetis who came to Britain chefs: they were originally boatmen, hired to stoke the engines of British steamships. The job was unbearable and Sylhetis became notorious for jumping ship in ports around the world. In London, a small community took hold in the East End in the 1940s and some entrepreneurial Sylhetis soon began setting up boarding houses and cafés and then bringing over their relatives.
This is a classic example of immigrant innovation coupled with chain migration, but it couldn't last. Children born in the UK became better educated and less willing to work in the family restaurants. Changing immigration laws have made it harder to recruit willing workers from the "old country." And, of course, competition and changing eating habits have all taken their toll. Keep these things in mind next time you have dinner in the UK.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Is It Hot Enough For You? We're Setting Global Heat Records

The news came out today that 2015 was the hottest year on earth since records have been kept, going back to the 1880s. Everyone has the story, with CNN noting the following:
Last year was the Earth's warmest since record-keeping began in 1880, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA said Wednesday.
It's been clear for quite some time that 2015 would steal the distinction of the hottest year from 2014, with 10 out of the 12 months last year being the warmest respective months on record -- and those records go back 136 years.
The map below from BBC News shows the places on earth where the heat records have been shattered--this is not some isolated event.

The proximate cause is of course our dramatic increase in the use of carbon fuels, but that is inextricably linked with population growth. Future sustainability obviously requires that we bring a halt to population growth and reverse the trend of carbon fuel use. In both cases, the sooner, the better.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Unbelievable Map of Rise in Overdose Deaths in the U.S.

Thanks to Rubén Rumbaut for linking me to the story in NYTimes that follows up on their earlier coverage of the rise in overdose deaths among young white men in the U.S. that I talked about yesterday.
Deaths from drug overdoses have surged in nearly every county across the United States, driven largely by an explosion in addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin.

Some of the largest concentrations of overdose deaths were in Appalachia and the Southwest, according to new county-level estimates released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number of these deaths reached a new peak in 2014: 47,055 people, or the equivalent of about 125 Americans every day.
They have mapped these data and I have pasted in the maps below for 2004 and 2014. The rise over that decade is astonishing. My only thought about this is: Whoa doctor! And I mean that literally.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Early Deaths in the US: Young Whites are Affected, Not Just the Middle Aged

In October 2015, Angus Deaton won the Nobel Prize in Economics. The next month he and his wife, Anne Case, published a widely cited article on the surprising rise in deaths among middle aged whites, especially men, in the U.S. The discussion around that article unleashed a much larger discussion about the role of prescription opioids as pain-killers that then become people killers because of resulting dependency and overdoses. Sunday's NYTimes digs into the issue in some depth, discovering in the process that it is not just a middle-aged phenomenon--younger white males are also at risk.
The Times analyzed nearly 60 million death certificates collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1990 to 2014. It found death rates for non-Hispanic whites either rising or flattening for all the adult age groups under 65 — a trend that was particularly pronounced in women — even as medical advances sharply reduce deaths from traditional killers like heart disease. Death rates for blacks and most Hispanic groups continued to fall.
Not many young people die of any cause. In 2014, there were about 29,000 deaths out of a population of about 25 million whites in the 25-to-34 age group. That number had steadily increased since 2004, rising by about 5,500 — about 24 percent — while the population of the group as a whole rose only 5 percent. In 2004, there were 2,888 deaths from overdoses in that group; in 2014, the number totaled 7,558. 
Mortality rates, said Mark D. Hayward, a professor of sociology [and well-known demographer] at the University of Texas at Austin, are one of the most sensitive measures of quality of life...“There are large numbers of people who never get established in the economy, who live outside family relationships and are on the edge of poverty,” Dr. Hayward said. Many end up taking prescription narcotics, he added. “Poverty and stress, for example, are risk factors for misuse of prescription narcotics,” Dr. Hayward said. 
Eileen Crimmins, a professor of gerontology [and well-known demographer] at the University of Southern California, said the causes of death in these younger people were largely social — “violence and drinking and taking drugs.” Her research shows that social problems are concentrated in the lower education group.
Of some interest in the story is the idea that whites are more affected than minority group members because physicians are much less likely to prescribe the pain-killers to them for fear that they will be more likely than whites to sell them or become addicted. Here is a rare case where racial/ethnic stereotypes have inadvertently saved lives. The long-term solution seems to be fairly straight-forward--stop prescribing these drugs!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

We Need GMO Food to Feed the World

I mention in the book, and I've discussed it in this blog before, but it's worth restating: GMO food is not going to kill us. Rather, it is what is required if we are to feed the world's continually growing population. This point was made rather emphatically on the CBS Sunday Morning program this morning. Citing a Pew Research poll, the story notes that "Polls show 57 percent of Americans think GMOs are unsafe to eat. But consider this: 88 percent of scientists say GMOs are safe."
"We're looking at genes that make the plants tolerant of flooding," said Dr. Pam Ronald, a plant geneticist at the University of California - Davis, whose husband is a certified organic farmer. "We're also interested in drought. And we're also looking at genes that control the disease resistance in plants."
Petersen asked, "Has any study shown even as much as one person who's been harmed or died from eating food that was genetically engineered?"
"There's not a single instance of harm to human health or the environment using genetically-engineered crops," Ronald replied. 
Ronald points out that farmers have been genetically altering food for thousands of years, using techniques like grafting, hybridization, and cross-breeding. Look at corn, for example: Today's modern sweet corn produces a hundredfold more grain than its ancient ancestor, which is not used anymore.
"Nothing we eat has been engineered by nature," said Ronald. "Everything we eat has been genetically altered using human intervention."
Now, this is not the same thing as saying that we should agree to everything that Monsanto does. We need checks and balances. But we also need to separate GMOs from corporate misdeeds. Let me repeat a comment I made in that earlier blog post because, in my opinion, this is the main point surrounding GMO food:
Obviously, there are good genetic modifications and bad ones, but we need to allow ourselves the ability to choose the good and move on. Think of it this way: if we just let nature take its course on all issues related to food, water, and health, there would be fewer than 1 billion of us on the planet and we would all have a very low life expectancy. We would still be living in the demographic hell that has consumed most of human existence up until very recently. I doubt that very many of us long for that existence...

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Can Ebola Be Wiped Out?

We all came out of Africa historically, and a lot of nasty diseases also seem to have originated there. That is one of the many reasons that the highest mortality rates in the world are in Africa, as pointed out a few days ago by Joseph Chamie, former director of the UN Population Division.
Despite remarkable reductions in mortality, 13 sub-Saharan African countries — 1 out of every 20 people in the world — have yet to achieve life expectancies at birth of 55 years, the global average attained a half century ago...The world’s lowest life expectancies at birth that fall just under 50 years old are found in the Central African Republic, Lesotho and Swaziland.
In recent times, HIV came out of Africa as did, of course, Ebola. The World Health Organization today announced that the latest round of Ebola is over--for now. It won't be over for good, however, until we figure out exactly where it "lives" between flare-ups. Nature has a good summary today of the search for the source of this devil of a disease.
It is no easy task. Since the disease first emerged in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) 40 years ago, efforts to trace the origins of the outbreaks, including the most recent one, have come up frustratingly empty. Wild gorillas and chimpanzees in central Africa have experienced occasional Ebola outbreaks. But like humans, these species are too ravaged by the virus to serve as its natural host. Experts say that a reservoir species is likely to harbour the virus only at low levels, and without becoming sick.
The leading candidates are several species of fruit bat from across central and West Africa — where all known Ebola outbreaks have originated — that are often hunted for meat. A 2005 study1uncovered Ebola genetic material in some fruit bats from Gabon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and detected Ebola antibodies in the blood of others. Marburg virus, which is closely related to Ebola, is thought to be transmitted by fruit bats.
But the evidence is not yet convincing that fruit bats are, in fact, the culprits.
Some researchers advise casting the net even wider. “I don’t buy the bat story for Ebola virus, not at all,” says virologist Jens Kuhn of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland. He thinks that bats are much too abundant and too closely associated with humans to explain an infection that has emerged just two dozen times over the past four decades. “It’s going to be a strange host,” he says. Even arthropods or fungi could be possibilities, he adds.
However, one of the themes that runs through the story is that the disease is most likely spread when humans eat animals that act as a reservoir for the disease. You can see where I'm going. If we give up meat, we may stop the spread of a lot of diseases. Just saying... 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Lebanon Closing Doors to Syrian Refugees

The UN Population Division estimates that Syria's population is currently about 18 million, down from 21 million in 2010. The violence has killed a lot of people and has displaced millions. The Humanitarian Information Unit of the US State Department estimated a few months ago that there were then more than 4 million Syrians seeking refuge outside of the country, with another 8 million internally displaced in the country (see the map below). Overall, two out of every three Syrians is estimated to need help of some kind or another. But that isn't easy, as we all have seen on the news, and as I commented on just a couple of days ago. The latest bit of bad news comes from Lebanon where, according to the NYTimes, the limit seems to have been reached when it comes to accommodating their next-door neighbors.
After taking in a million Syrian refugees, Lebanon has quietly changed course in recent months, forcing refugees to return to Syria — where they are at risk of persecution or death — or stay illegally, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Lebanon in 2015 reversed a longstanding open-door policy for Syrians that allowed them to enter the country and reside there relatively unencumbered. At a minimum, they must now pay $200 per adult for a permit that lasts between six and 12 months, obtained through an onerous bureaucratic process that accompanies each application.
Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said most of refugees have lost their legal status over the past year because of the new regulations.
What is going to happen to these people? And what about the refugees in Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq? As hard as it is to wrap your mind around this, the answer is simply that no one knows. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Migration and the State of the Union

The New York Times published a story today about the latest United Nations estimates of migration around the world. As far as I can tell there was nothing especially timely about the article, but it provides a good reason to bring up the subject.
According to the latest United Nations estimates, 244 million people, or 3.3 percent of the world’s population, live in a country other than the one where they were born. Their ranks are growing at a faster pace than the world population as a whole, with enormous economic, social and demographic repercussions for their native and adopted countries. 
However, they are concentrated in just 20 countries. By far, the most popular destination in 2015 was the United States, followed by Germany, Russia and Saudi Arabia. But the ranking should not be viewed as a popularity contest. Saudi Arabia shows up because it hosts an enormous number of migrant workers, not immigrants who resettle, as in the United States.
Indians make up the largest diaspora: 16 million Indians are scattered across the world, which partly reflects the country’s demographic size (1.2 billion) and youth (median age is around 26).
It should be further noted (as I have before) that most of Russia's immigrants are from former republics of the Soviet Union, so it is hard to distinguish that from what would have been a type of internal migration in the "old" days. 

If you listened to President Obama's State of the Union address tonight you will know that he reminded us of the deeply rooted idea that this is a nation of immigrants, no matter how threatened people might feel. He didn't mention that almost every immigrant group to America has faced discrimination of one kind or another, but eventually all groups become part of mainstream society and this why the U.S. is what it is. That same theme was echoed by South Carolina governor Nikki Haley (herself a child of immigrants from India) in her GOP response to the president's address. Given all the anti-immigrant rhetoric that we have been hearing on the presidential campaign trail, I found both of these speeches to be a bit refreshing.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Europe Continues to be Tested by the Migrant Crisis

I think that it is safe to say that without the violence in Syria (it seems too complicated to call it simply a civil war) there would not be the influx of migrants into Europe that we are seeing. Migrants, yes--but not this volume. The two countries that support Assad and thus implicitly have helped to prolong conflict--Iran and Russia--are not too heavily affected by the refugee problem, so they aren't as bothered as is Europe--especially the corridor from Greece up to Scandinavia. Those corridor countries are struggling. Sweden instituted border controls recently in order to be able to check identities of would-be asylum seekers. This took place especially at the bridge connecting Copenhagen, Denmark with Malmo, Sweden. This hasn't gone down well with commuters between the two cities, who apparently rioted over this. The Danes responded to the Swedish action with their own set of border controls along their southern border with Germany. 

All of this comes in conjunction with New Year's Eve attacks on women in Cologne that were reportedly carried out by a group of males who appeared to be of Northern African origin. As NPR reported this morning, that investigation is still ongoing, but there do appear to have been asylum seekers among the attackers, and this has obviously caused a lot of concern in Germany and elsewhere. The point remains, though, that the problem will not go away until the Mess in the Middle East is dealt with more successfully. 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Population Growth is Forcing Changes to Saudi Arabia's Economy

In 1938, oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia with the help of American oil engineers. This was only a few years after the country of Saudi Arabia had been founded by Abdulaziz Al Saud, from whom the current rulers of the country are descended. At the time, the major source of income for the royal family was collecting fees from pilgrims to the holy site of Mecca. Oil revenue changed all that, and that the world is a different place as a result. 

But here's the problem. In 1938 there were fewer than 3 million Saudis. In 1950, there were still only slightly more than 3 million because because, despite the high fertility (7 children per woman), death rates were also very high, especially among infants. But Saudi connections to the US and Europe also brought death control and so by 1985 the population had swelled to 14 million, as women continued to have nearly 7 children each, but more were surviving. As of 2015, the average Saudi woman was having "only" 3 children, but nearly all survive to adulthood and so the population is currently estimated to be almost 32 million--10 times what it was in 1950. UN demographers project the population to increase to 46 million by the middle of this century. When 90% of your national revenue is from one non-renewable source--in this case oil--population growth of this kind is going to be a problem. The Economist sat down with Prince Muhammad bin Salman (the Deputy Crown Prince) last week for a fascinating look into the changes that he foresees for the country, as it tries to cope with the population/resource ratio in the future.
The Al Sauds have survived by making three compacts: with the Wahhabis to burnish their Islamic credentials as the custodians of the holy places of Mecca and Medina; with the population by providing munificence in exchange for acquiescence to absolutist rule; and with America to defend Saudi Arabia in exchange for stability in oil markets.
But all three of these covenants are fraying. America is semi-detached from the Middle East. The plummeting price of oil, which provides almost all of the government’s revenues, means the old economic model can no longer sustain the swelling and unproductive population. And the alliance with obscurantists brings threats, because they provide intellectual sustenance to jihadists, and form an obstacle even to modest social reforms that must be part of any attempt to wean the country off oil and create a more productive economy.
The most notorious plan is to sell shares in Aramco (originally the Arab American Oil Company), but other plans are underway to increase economic activity in the private sector including getting more women into the labor force.
The prince says that he supports women working, not least to reduce the fertility rate: “A large portion of my productive factors are unutilised,” he says. “I have population growth reaching very scary figures.” These days Saudi Arabia has more women in the workplace, but female labour-force participation is still very low, at 18%. Prince Muhammad thinks women are not taking full advantage of the opportunities they already have: “A large percentage of Saudi women are used to the fact of staying at home. They’re not used to being working women.” Still, he is in no mood to challenge the ban on women driving—even though some might want to lay off their chauffeurs in such straitened times. “I do not want to get involved in this issue as it is Saudi society that will decide whether to accept it or not.”
The question, of course, is whether these changes will come quickly enough to save Saudi Arabia or whether its population growth will simply add to the demographic pressure that has been a huge factor in the regional violence that we've been seeing over the past decades. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Religious Demographics of the Middle East

The new tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have reminded us of the sectarian divide among Muslims in that region of the world, accompanied by an emptying out of the Christian population. Foreign Policy posted a very nice map today (see below) that includes a percentage of the total population of each country in the region that is Sunni (i.e., supported by Saudi Arabia) and Shia (i.e., supported by Iran). You can see, in particular, that Iraq is geographically and demographically in the middle, sharing borders with both Saudi Arabia and Iran and being the most divided between the two branches of Islam. Of course, Saddam Hussein was Sunni, but leading a population that had a Shia majority (even if a slim majority), whereas Bashar al-Assad is a member of a Shia sect ruling over a fairly large Sunni majority. These would not be issues if everyone could just get along, but that seems not always to be the case, just as there has been a lot of history, if you will, between Catholic and Protestant Christians. In the countries on the map, with the exception of Israel, most of the "other" category represents Christians, who essentially are caught in the middle of sectarian violence. A story in the Economist lays out the demographic exodus of Christians from the Middle East, epitomized in the U.S. by the Iraqi Chaldean Christian immigrant population, which I discuss in Chapter 12 of my text.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

New Estimates of the US Muslim Population

As one of those people who has tried to estimate the size of the U.S. Muslim population over the years, I appreciate the efforts of Pew Research to undertake this task. It is complicated by the fact that government surveys and censuses in this country do not ask questions about religion (precisely to maintain a separation of church and state), so we have to use private surveys and/or indirect means to do the calculations. 
Pew Research Center estimates that there were about 3.3 million Muslims of all ages living in the United States in 2015. This means that Muslims made up about 1% of the total U.S. population (about 322 million people in 2015), and we estimate that that share will double by 2050.
At the moment, the U.S. population is overwhelmingly Christian or "no religion" (most of whom are probably "ethnic" Christians--born into a family that is/was nominally Christian). Jews are second on the list, albeit accounting for only 1.8% of the population, Muslims are third at 1% and Hindus are third at 0.7%. 

By 2050 the current Pew projections suggest that Muslims will have overtaken Jews as a percentage of the population. This is because of expected continued immigration (Pew estimates that Muslims represent about 10% of legal immigrants but only a negligible fraction of undocumented immigrants) and because Muslims tend to have more children than the U.S. average. Furthermore, since the Muslim population is relatively recent, it is comprised of a fairly high percentage of young people, so their reproduction will contribute disproportionately to population growth.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Population Policy in Vietnam

Vietnam has borrowed a lot of policy ideas from the Chinese over the years, including a household registration system (as I discussed a couple of years ago), and a population policy aimed at bringing fertility down and keeping it low. In the early 1990s Vietnam introduced its two-child policy, which  was only loosely enforced, but probably helped the birth rate drop from an average of 3.2 children in 1990 to just below replacement level (1.9) in 2000, where it has stayed since, according to the data from the UN Population Division. The result has been a classic demographic dividend, in which the working age population has expanded both numerically and as a fraction of the population, while the older and younger age groups have declined as a percentage of the total. The average person in Vietnam is better off now as a result, albeit still poor by global standards. 

This week's Economist has sort of an overview of Vietnam's population trends and policy in light of the country's health ministry circulating a draft revision of its population law.  
It is not a moment too soon. A whopping two-thirds of the country’s 90m people are of working age. That gives Vietnam a chance to boom economically over the next three decades. But the “demographic dividend” may then stop abruptly. Fertility rates in some Vietnamese cities have fallen to below the population replacement rate, a trend that could eventually lead to a shortage of workers, as Japan and other rich countries have learnt to their cost. The difference is that Vietnam risks growing old before it grows rich.
The Economist seems not to understand the idea that the demographic dividend is a transition period. You cannot keep it up unless you kill off people before they reach old age. You have to use that dividend to figure out ways to keep the economy going. And, by the way, the World Bank data do not suggest that Vietnam is likely to get rich, no matter what its population policy. So, the other troublesome items in the proposed revision of policy are considerably more important:
The new population law, in its current wording, would not help. It proposes to leave the two-child policy in place and ban abortion after 12 weeks, down from the current limit of 22 weeks, except in cases of rape. That may send even more pregnant Vietnamese into shadowy abortion clinics. In September some 17 public-health professionals complained about the proposed law in a letter to the health minister. Such pressure may prompt the government to extend the proposed 12-week limit. 
However, the population-control measures being mulled by the ministry contain another troubling feature: a pre-natal focus on “population quality”. That sounds harmless enough, but the underlying idea, according to a foreign health-policy expert in Hanoi, is that health officials could encourage mothers to abort fetuses showing signs of disability.
It is likely that couples in Vietnam will not return to the larger families of the past, so changes to the two-child policy are not apt to have much effect. However, putting women's health at risk by limiting the options around abortion--as well as the idea of seeking some sort of "population quality"--are not things that should be promoted by any government.

Monday, January 4, 2016

More Parents is Better Than Fewer Parents For Most Children

The ancient African proverb says that it takes a village to raise children. But that village is typically a rural place populated by the extended kin of the children in question. In the U.S. today there are few such villages and an increasing fraction of children appear to be growing up in something considerably less than a village. A new Pew Research report puts together data from the ACS and the Current Population to paint a pretty clear picture of the different circumstances in which children find themselves, depending especially on the marital status of the parents. Here's the picture:

And here's the commentary:
The dramatic changes that have taken place in family living arrangements have no doubt contributed to the growing share of children living at the economic margins...The economic outcomes for these different types of families vary dramatically. In 2014, 31% of children living in single-parent households were living below the poverty line, as were 21% of children living with two cohabiting parents. By contrast, only one-in-ten children living with two married parents were in this circumstance. In fact, more than half (57%) of those living with married parents were in households with incomes at least 200% above the poverty line, compared with just 21% of those living in single-parent households.
I have touched on this topic before, but every time I see new data, it hits me over the head again that we are creating problems for ourselves unnecessarily, by increasingly deciding to have children without the benefit to the children of having both parents around.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Solar Power for the World's Poor

Electricity was discovered scarcely more than a century ago. It was introduced first into the cities of the U.S. and Europe, and spread from there. It is hard for us now to imagine what life was like before electricity. We get a glimpse during power outages, but the entire world is a different and more "luxurious" place because of electricity. To be sure, it has been less than half a century since most of the farms in the US were finally hooked up to the grid. And therein lies the problem--the grid. It is expensive to build power plants and string up the power lines to electrify rural households. It is expensive not just in terms of monetary investment, but also in terms of the environmental damage created by fossil-fuel based (especially coal) power plants. It is hard to imagine the environmental cost of getting coal-fired electricity to the 1.2 billion people on the planet who don't have it. This is where the sun comes in.

About one in four of those in the world without electricity live in rural India and, as a story in today's NYTimes details, there is a company trying to get solar power to these folks.
A few years ago, the hundred or so residents of Paradeshappanamatha, a secluded hamlet in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, gathered along the central pathway between their 22 densely clustered homes, and watched as government workers hoisted a solar-powered streetlamp. As the first display of electricity in the town, it was an object of mild interest, but, being outside, the light didn’t help anyone cook or study, and only attracted moths.
Still, when B. Prasad arrived two years later to encourage people here to abandon kerosene lighting for solar-powered home systems, people had some idea what he was talking about. What sounded preposterous to the village residents was the price. Mr. Prasad, an agent for Solar Electric Light Company, or Selco, was selling a panel and battery that would power three lights and an attached socket for phone charging for approximately 12,800 rupees, or $192.
“There was no way we could afford that,” P. C. Kalayya remembers thinking. He and his neighbors rise early in the morning to walk miles along a nearly impassable dirt road to work on coffee, pepper and betel nut plantations. Mr. Kalayya earns $3 a day — he’d been earning $2.25 until a raise came through this year — and half his wage is withheld by his employer as repayment for various loans.
And yet, despite what seemed on its face an impossibly high cost, Selco agents succeeded in persuading Mr. Kalayya and 10 other village households to make the switch. Now, his wife can better see how much spice she is putting in as she cooks, and Pratima, their 18-year-old daughter, can study long after dark.
This is exactly the direction the world needs be going--improving people's lives without threatening the sustainability of life on the planet. A few months ago I discussed a new book by Lester Brown suggesting that solar power was the future, and it is very encouraging to see these ideas work in practice.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Demography is Connected to Nearly Everything: Evidence From the National Academy of Sciences

I often make the point in my text, and to students directly, that demography is connected to nearly everything (yes, I really think EVERYTHING, but I more cautiously say "nearly" everything!). Some evidence of that came today from the National Academies Press (NAP), the publication arm of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS). They created a list of the 15 most downloaded reports (for free--you can download all of their reports for free) of 2015. Each of them has some connection to demographic trends and issues in the world.

The top two have to do with education--especially teaching students to be better scientists. These are the kinds of things that improve a person's human capital and increase their chance of a successful socioeconomic outcome in life. 

The third one is perhaps least related to demography in a substantive way, although closely related to my own career--enhancing the effectiveness of team science. Teams are important in terms of sharing ideas and resources, and are enormously important in the advancement of science, which has huge ramifications for everything that goes on in human society.

Numbers four through seven, nine, thirteen, and fourteen are related to the health and mortality transition, focusing especially on health care and successful aging, as well as a key volume on the food system.

Numbers eight, eleven, and twelve focus on environmental issues--concerns that have arisen only because of the combination of population growth and higher standards of living.

Number ten examines the interesting issue of how we make sure that we have a highly qualified workforce to guide the development of children in their earliest years of life. Can we afford to leave this important work to amateurs?

Finally, number fifteen tackles the issue of putting communities back together after disaster. This is a subject not unrelated to an NAS report in which I was involved a few years ago.

A great way to start the new year...Happy reading! 

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Top Ten Blog Posts of 2015

As I do on New Year's Day each year, I have taken a look back at the most popular items in the past year. Who are the winners among the nearly 300 that I posted in 2015, based on the number of hits on each one? Here they are:

1. The clear winner was the story about how many Muslims there are in France--a question that arose after the Charlie Hebdo killings early in 2015, but was then resurrected by the Paris attacks in late 2015:

2. The second place post coincided with my wife and I celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary, as I asked the question about the likelihood that you might make it to your own 50th anniversary. Spoiler alert: the odds are not high 😞

3. Third place went to the PAA Presidential Address by Prof. Steven Ruggles of the University of Minnesota. His talk on "Patriarchy, Power, and Pay" used historical data to show how dramatically the labor force has changed over the past two hundred years, and his prescriptions for change will sound familiar to regular readers of this blog. BTW, his address the was published in the December 2015 issue of Demography.

4. The one-child policy in China is of enormous global interest and in January 2015 there was a lot of speculation about the prospect that China would lift that policy. It did, but no one realistically expects this to generate a new baby boom.

5. Angus Deaton's Nobel Prize in Economics was a win not just for him, but for demography as a science:

6. Aging populations have caused a lot of angst in low-fertility countries, especially in Europe and East Asia and a blog post about this issue generated a lot of interest. Indeed, it is a topic that I have discussed on numerous occasions, most recently only a few days ago. And, as it turns out, the second most popular blog post of all time (to date) has been the one from 2014 in which I lay out the key to successful aging for people and societies--work long and save.

7. Fertility in the U.S. hovers right around replacement level, so any new information about fertility trends counts as important news. Here's what we learned in May of 2015:

8. I was very pleased to see that the top ten list included my post about the release of the 2015 PRB World Population Data Sheet. Don't leave home without those data readily available on your cell phone or iPad:

9. Ninth place goes to the genuinely bizarre story about the Saudi land grab in Arizona. I still have a tough time with that one:

10. The final blog post on the top ten list is a sad one--about Haiti and its role, if you will, as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

While this is technically a look back, most of these stories will still be affecting us in 2016--as will the others that I have posted that didn't make the top ten list. Egypt has not been at the top of the news cycle in the past year, but the most popular blog post of all-time (going back to 2010) is the one from 2011 in which I try to answer the question about how poor is the average Egyptian.

Happy New Year!