Q&A With Population Expert Steve Ruggles

Talk, Banter & Buzz

DISTINGUISHED MCKNIGHT University Professor Steve Ruggles is director of the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota, which recently moved into an 18,000-square-foot space in Willey Hall, employs 100 researchers and staff, and will likely soon surpass even the U.S. Census Bureau to contain more population data than any other place in the world. Ruggles is sometimes called a Quant, as in quantification. Quants are numbers historians, laboring on the leading edge of what Wired magazine called “the first new scholastic discipline of the information age”: historical demography. Numbers, properly analyzed, don’t lie. And armed with census data, Ruggles and other historical demographers have debunked numerous social myths.

Has welfare destroyed black families? Ruggles found that African Americans actually have had a higher-than-average percentage of single-parent families since at least 1850—well before welfare—and the rate of single parenthood has increased no more for blacks over the past several decades than for whites. And remember the study that said professional women, by delaying marriage, were doomed to become old maids? Well, that one may be true, Ruggles says—marriage rates for everyone are projected to decline. As the population center disseminates data from a growing number of countries, the Quant revolution will continue to rewrite world history, as well. It’s garnering Ruggles more angry mail than is received by the average historian.

Exploded any good myths lately?
[We once thought] that people used to marry very young—Romeo and Juliet getting married at 14 or whatever. In reality, it turns out that prior to the 20th century, and going back as far as we can measure, to about the 15th century, people in northwestern Europe and North America married very late.

Any others?
If you read the literature on the history of the family, it’s going to tell you that families were always nuclear and the elderly always preferred to live alone. Well, you know, in 1850, 70 percent of the elderly lived with their children, and only about 80 to 85 percent of them had had any children. In other words, almost everybody who could have lived with a kid was doing so. If you read the qualitative sources, you would simply have no idea that that was going on.

Is population growth going to destroy us?
In 1968, The Population Bomb was published, and everybody was thinking that by 2000 we would be starving. It didn’t turn out that way, and one major reason is that worldwide fertility decline has been vastly greater than anticipated. There are certainly many people concerned about sustainability; everyone could eat if there was a way to get food to those who need it. But now the projections are that world population will stabilize in a couple of decades before it starts to decline.

You have census data from dozens of countries. How did you get it?
We have one faculty member, Bob McCaa, who is constantly on the road. He does hundreds of thousands of miles a year. He just picked up Fiji. He used to sell encyclopedias door-to-door, so he’s a real salesman type—persistent and friendly and good at laying out the arguments about the absolute importance of preserving and disseminating the data. We think this stuff is like gold.

What are you working on now?
A book to try to explain everything that’s happened to the family in the last 150 years.

Good luck.