Demographic Policies and Time

I am not sure why, but it seems like summer is a great time to teach demographic methods. There seem to be an abundance of news stories about demographic processes and events. (By the way I am fully aware that this is a version of confirmation bias. I am teaching the class so I look for the stories and find them.)

 

This Bloomberg.com article titled China’s Demographic Time Bomb Continues to Tick is really interesting. One of the things I emphasize in any presentation about demographic processes, events, or methods is that the consequences of demographic changes should not really be a surprise. This came up on the radio a few weeks ago. I mentioned an article from the Grand Forks Herald (c.2003-4) expressing surprise at the boom in registrations for kindergarten that year. Well, if you went back into the data you would see a bit of a spike in births in 1997 (a consequence of the harsh winter and flood, always seems to happen after disasters, and power outages). The local area had about six years or so to prepare for this enrollment surge; it was not the case that it snuck up on anyone.

 

The same type of circumstances seem to be happening in China. I encourage you to read the article (demography students will be required to read it) to get the full details. In short, the article is another testament to the difficulties, if not follies, of demographic policies.

 

Demographic policies, encouraging/discouraging births or migration, are not easy because they intersect with so many other aspects of individual and family/household decisions. As the article mentions, a decision to have a child has household budget impacts and career impacts that can be quite significant.

 

Add to this that China is now attempting to reverse policy. Decades of a one child policy did the job and discouraged people from having more children, creating issues of gender imbalance and social program and social fabric fraying. Reversing the policy will be neither quick nor easy. The two child policy is well short of the expected increases in births for some very plain reasons.

 

It gets to the point where I question why governments (at all levels) attempt to influence population at all. Whether through the tax code or with direct payments or social safety nets these policy tools are, at best, one of many pieces of an exceedingly complex calculation made by individuals/households. Even these policies tend to play out over long periods of time, just like the demographic events. Predicting the outcomes of these policies, in particular how individuals and households will respond to them, is incredibly difficult even under normal, boring times. However it seems as if the supposed Chinese curse applies these days and we live in interesting times.

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