The Population Association of America has joined the family of Social Science Space partners this summer, and to mark that we spoke with the president of the PAA, Johns Hopkins economist Robert Moffitt.
The Population Association of America is a “big tent,” explains Robert Moffitt, the current president of the professional organization founded in 1931.
“Its core are demographers who are sociologists, usually located in departments of sociology at universities, but it includes many other types of researchers from different disciplines – economics is heavily represented,” Moffitt, an economist at The Johns Hopkins University, noted. “We have child development psychologists, public health professionals, applied demographers who work for the government. So it’s a big tent.”
PAA’s own population of roughly 3,000 is primarily drawn from academic researchers in universities, but it also has a strong membership from government, such as the Census Bureau and statistical agencies that chart population growth. It also has quite a few members who do population projections and other sorts of demographic research for either local governments or private industry. As a result, the topics it investigates go well beyond the enumeration of people and charting growth to examining the activities of those people by looking at things like fertility, marriage and inequality.
The tent also extends beyond the United States, both in regions studied and where scholars are drawn from. For example, PAA has a stand-alone funding campaign that has been used in part to pay for travel funds to bring scholars from Africa to attend PAA’s annual meetings.
(Moffitt enthused that that fund campaign creates a unique opportunity for PAA “to do things right now,” such as energizing efforts to encourage minorities and women to get more involved in the Population Association and demography, or to sponsor outreach to government, such as a recent briefing at the Government Accountability Office on current population research.)
Meanwhile, 2014 has included several signal events for the association. The PAA’s bi-monthly scholarly journal Demography, celebrated its 50th birthday this year (the PAA also publishes two newsletters, the quarterly PAA Affairs and the twice-a-year Applied Demography), and the organization will name a new executive director to replace Stephanie Dudley, who is retiring in December after 17 years managing the association.
Social Science Space asked Moffitt a few questions recently about PAA and demographics in general:
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I‘m an economist and I’ve done a lot of work on the economics of the family — the economics of divorce and marriage and child-bearing, particularly among the poor. That’s how I first got involved with PAA. As an economist I feel the impact of poverty, the impact of whether jobs are available for young women and for the men they might marry, has a big impact. My overall major research area is poverty and the welfare system in the United States, and I’ve done a lot of work, not necessarily about the family, on trends in poverty and trends in the welfare system in the U.S. It dovetails with the interests of many members of the PAA.
Inequality is a hot topic right now.
Very much. Both economists and demographers of many kinds are studying that. The economists, of course, always concentrate on income inequality and the things we can measure in earnings and labor market issues, that’s what we’re good at. The demographers bring in the family side of things; they charted the differences in family breakup, in child development at different income levels, something economists haven’t done that much work on. One of the most well known [PAA] presidential addresses was from a very well known scholar at Princeton, Sara McLanahan. It was called “Diverging Destinies”  and it was all about how children growing up in low income families end up with very different outcomes, much lower rates of success in education, jobs and family than children growing up in more middle class households.
Health is another one demographers work on. They call it health disparities. Again, the income equality we’ve been experiences is accompanied by a divergence in health outcomes. Children from very poor and low income families, and the gap between health of children in low income families and middle income families is growing.
I see the association is celebrating its 85th anniversary soon. Has the purpose of PAA changed over the years?
I would say the purpose has not changed; the important issues change. … In the 1930s and all the way through the 1960s, the major issue in population research was the fear of excessive population growth – the population explosion. The world over, not only developed countries but developing counties, was worried about very high fertility rates and the problems that that would cause. The most popular advocate of that view was a fellow named Paul Ehrlich who wrote a book called The Population Bomb back in the ’60s – very widely read. Through the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s that was really the predominant concern and research issue. But that’s actually changed; population growth has declined in most developing countries and we’re doing a lot better than we used to do, although it’s still an issue in Africa.
The interest has shifted a little bit more toward what we call social demography. In the U.S., for example, it’s about issues like unmarried women having children when they’re young, possibly harming their careers. Problems of divorce, problems of children’s development in poor families, a lot of what we call social issues. There’s been a shift in the field, but the Population Association has been pretty much the same in terms of what it does since it began.
It’s intriguing that there’s an ethics statement right on the bottom of your website’s ‘About Us’ page. That seems like a statement in itself.
That’s something we’ve had there for a while. My perception is that a lot of professional associations are talking again about this today, or in recent years. The Population Association sees itself as really providing information to improve society in both developed and developing countries and I would say compared to other organizations really sees itself as holding high moral principles. I don’t believe there was any specific incident that induced PAA to adopt it, but it comes up often that we are trying to maintain high research principles.
Does PAA take a stand on efforts to restrict or control federal collection of data like the American Community Survey, and if so, how active is your advocacy arm?
We’re very active on that front. As researchers, we believe that the highest quality data needs to be collected and we need to be informed about what’s happening with our citizens and with society. There are a number of statistical agencies within Washington, like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Center for Health Statistics, and NSF and NIH, the Census Bureau is the most well known, and some state and local ones.
Our government and public affairs committee is very active in taking nonpartisan stand on in supporting the highest quality data collection possible. Sometimes public policy officials in Washington don’t understand the value of research. They have a lot of other concerns, privacy concerns that are very valid but which have to be balanced against research concerns. Our organization is non-partisan but we are quite active in putting forward the value of high quality data collection in Washington. There have been a lot of discussions in Washing recently , some members of Congress would like to make the American Community Survey, the ACS, a voluntary survey . Unfortunately, it’s the most valuable survey we have, an invaluable data set. The Census Bureau always has felt that citizens should be very strongly encouraged to answer the questions on that survey, and the PAA has supported the Census Bureau position.
What sort of activities do you see PAA being involved in over the next 10 to 15 years?
The problem is with academic research, I think, is that its value is very widespread but very diffuse and there’s no lobbyist out there who’s receiving that research and puts value on it and is going to go to Congress and support it in the way that others sorts of projects Congress supports has advocates and strong lobbying organizations. So we feel we have to be in there to represent the value of research and data collection and I’m sure there’s going to be many tough discussions. They’ve already begun. I only anticipate them as getting worse. The PAA doesn’t believe that research deserves complete protection or that data deserves complete protection, but we ask for a balanced view that research and data collection not receive a disproportionate cut in their funding compared to other uses.
We also have an educational function. We regularly have briefings on the Hill, regularly attended by staffers, on any kind of demographic issue that is of interest to Congress. Just a few months ago, for example, we had one on immigration.
We will keep on working on increasing our minority representation, which is not high enough at the moment, getting more minorities interested in demography when they’re in college and thinking about making a career out of it. We really like to work on globalization, of course another buzzword of interest to everyone. International affairs is one of the top majors at many, many universities. PAA I anticipate will continue to do a lot of research abroad at many developing countries.
Any impediments to the kind of research you’re doing?
Not major ones. I think the ones coming out of Washington are important because the kind of research that demographers do typically do need research support. You’re talking about analyses of major datasets that take a lot of work, almost all demographers receive some sort of government support to analyze the data, have research assistants who help them, the professionals themselves just can’t so that themselves, it just takes too much. The data collection itself, the survey organizations, that requires quite a bit of money, and universities are just not in a position to do that.
I would say that apart from the issue of government support, universities themselves are not, by and large, in very good financial condition. You have an academic landscape where you have maybe 10 or 20 very rich universities at the very top, the elite ones, who have very large endowments and have enough money to give to their researchers to fund research, fund the collection of data, aid in the hiring of research assistants and give money so they have light teaching loads so the researchers can do a lot of research. But most universities are not like that.
Are we in a golden age of data? And is all data created equal?
I think we have had a golden age, and I think the U.S. itself should be very proud of the many, many datasets which it’s assembled in the past and most of which are continuing to go forward. Many other countries are envious of the U.S. for our data collection and look up to us and wish they could have the extensive data collection we have.
I’m sorry to say that going forward, and I hate to say it, I think we’ll be in something like a defensive mode trying to protect the valuable datasets that we have. As I said before, too, we understand that priorities have to be set, and not every data set is of equal value to the others. We have to identify those that are most valuable. But most of what we have right now, a lot of data sets have been discontinued because they haven’t shown themselves to be as important as others. But most of the major ones we have right now are yielding tremendously important information for public policy, things that Congress should does need to know, and society and voters need to know. Most of them, I hope, will continue.
It would be nice too if we had a few new ones. For example, I was just at a conference about all these transformations in the American family. Well, it turns out we do not have a good survey that asks about the cohabitation, whose children are whose in the family, whether they are the biological parents or not, and how that affect children’s development and support. Well, we need a data collection for that, and I’m sure that PAA will behind that and other kinds of efforts. New issues come up and that means other kinds of data need to be collected.