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 12th (it came out in 2015), 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.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Bill and Melinda Gates are Becoming Demographers

Bill and Melinda Gates have been doing intensive and extensive philanthropic work for nearly two decades. The initial thrust of the Gates Foundation work was toward children's health. But over time they came to the realization that as ever greater fractions of children stay alive, the demand for ways of limiting family size to what people desire grows because people realize that too many children can exhaust a family's resources. In sum, Bill and Melinda Gates came to appreciate the basic elements of the demographic transition, and they discuss that very explicitly in their annual newsletter, which came out this week and is in the format of their answers to ten tough questions they get asked. Tough Question #5 is "Does Saving Kids' Lives Lead to Overpopulation?"
Melinda: We asked ourselves the same question at first. Hans Rosling, the brilliant and inspiring public health advocate who died last year, was great at answering it [One of my very first blog posts back in 2010 was about his famous Ted Talk]. I wrote about the issue at length in our 2014 letter [and I blogged about that at the time]. But it bears repeating, because it is so counterintuitive. When more children live past the age of 5, and when mothers can decide if and when to have children, population sizes don’t go up. They go down. Parents have fewer children when they’re confident those children will survive into adulthood. Big families are in some ways an insurance policy against the tragic likelihood of losing a son or a daughter.
Now, to be clear, population size almost always DOES go up as the death rate goes down, because historically it has taken a while for people to realize that low death rates are here to stay, plus they need to have access to birth control. At the same time, if people trust the work of the Gates Foundation and have greater faith than in the past that death rates will be low and reproductive health care needs will be met, the gap between low death rates and low fertility will be lower and the population size impact will be less.
Bill: There’s another benefit to the pattern Melinda describes—first more children survive, then families decide to have fewer children—which is that it can lead to a burst of economic growth that economists call “the demographic dividend.” Here’s how it works.
When more children live, you get one generation that’s relatively big. Then, when families decide to have fewer children, the next generation is much smaller. Eventually, a country ends up with relatively more people in the labor force producing economically—and relatively fewer dependents (very old or very young people). That’s a recipe for rapid economic development, especially if countries take advantage of it by investing in health and education.
I commented very recently about the demographic dividend, and I am pleased to see that Bill Gates is thinking along these lines. Indeed, I would not want any of my comments to be viewed as negative toward what the Gates Foundation has been accomplishing. I encourage you to read the answers to all ten of their tough questions--answers which are admirably insightful and honest.

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