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Population, Urbanization, and the Environment

Population Composition and Social Change

Demographics and Social Change

Changing demographics are connected to social change and social problems.

Changes in demographics bring about social changes and often social problems. For example, in some societies, including the United States, the average age of the population has been shifting upward. Because of lower birth rates and longer life expectancy, older people make up a larger percentage of the population than ever before. An aging population, with a lower worker-to-retiree ratio, puts pressure on retirement programs such as Social Security. Taxes on workers’ wages fund Social Security payments that are made to retirees. With fewer workers and more retirees, demand for Social Security payments could outstrip money from workers coming into the fund.

Another example is changing racial demographics. In the United States, white people have historically made up the largest percentage of the population. But the United States is becoming more racially diverse, in large part because of immigration. Experts predict that by the middle of the 21st century, white people will make up less than 50 percent of the population. Hispanics will become the largest racial/ethnic group. However, this does not mean that white people will become less dominant in terms of social power. Many people believe the increase in diversification will lead to a decrease in racism. Others, however, point to an uptick in racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions as a reaction against diversification. Some researchers predict that white Americans will take increasingly strong actions to retain the social and cultural power they have traditionally wielded.

Studies show that as the percentage of immigrants in the U.S. population has increased, crime rates have gone down. There are a number of possible explanations for this correlation. The crime rate has steadily decreased since the 1990s for many reasons, including economic trends. Immigrant communities may also have norms that help decrease the crime rate. For example, immigrants tend to have high marriage rates and strong family ties, and immigrant communities tend to center around small businesses and social institutions. All these factors work to maintain social stability. Another consideration is that some members of immigrant communities may be less likely to report crimes because of a concern that some members of the community may be undocumented (lack legal authorization to reside and work in the country). If immigrants believe that reporting a crime could lead to the deportation of a friend or neighbor, they may choose not to contact law enforcement authorities.

Rates of Immigration and Violent Crime in the United States

A 2017 study using data from the FBI Uniform Crime Report and the American Community Survey found that in the United States, increasing immigration correlates to decreasing crime rates in both major urban hubs and smaller cities. The correlation does not mean that one of these trends causes the other, but it does show that immigration does not result in higher rates of crime. Sociologists use this kind of data to inform discussions of immigration.
Some populations, such as those of India and China, face a gender imbalance. In both of these countries the number of women is lower than the number of men. This gender imbalance is largely because of the practice of sex-selective abortion, which results in women giving birth to more boys than girls. Although this practice is complex, it is based on parental preference for having sons rather than daughters. In China the one-child policy (couples are required or encouraged to have no more than one child) implemented in 1979 is also a major contributing factor. The gender imbalance in these nations has led to a large number of men being unable to marry. Sociologists point out that this pattern leads to less social stability and more crime, including an increase in crimes against women. The governments of India and China have both taken steps to discourage parents from engaging in the practice of sex-selective abortion. China modified its one-child policy in 2016, based on concerns over its aging population. After decades of the one-child policy, 21st-century China has a high proportion of elderly people compared to young people. This means that there is a large population of older people who are ready to retire or may need care, while there are relatively few young people to replace retiring workers or care for older people. The one-child policy itself helped create this situation. Sociologists study how social and cultural patterns lead to these kinds of demographic trends, as well as how demographic trends impact society and culture.

Group Threat Theory

Group threat theory proposes that increased diversity in an area can lead the dominant group to feel threatened.
Group threat theory argues that when areas become very diverse, dominant groups feel like they are losing power, even if that is not the case. For example, California, Texas, Florida, and New York are states with extremely racially diverse populations, but also have high numbers of hate groups. Less diverse states, such as Oregon, Idaho, and Colorado, have become somewhat more diverse, and have relatively high numbers of hate groups. Group threat theory would argue that the presence of these hate groups is a result of the high or increased level of racial and ethnic diversity––members of these hate groups are members of the dominant, white majority who feel threatened by the increasing diversity. As the United States becomes increasingly more racially and ethnically diverse overall, calls to build a wall on the southern border have grown. Jobs, health care, education, and other opportunities are seen as finite resources that are being consumed by minority groups. With greater religious diversity, more Christians perceive Christianity as being under attack. As minority groups of all kinds increase in a society, the dominant group sees calls for equality for minority groups as unfair. Their perception is shaped by their dominant position in society, which encourages them to expect to maintain power, privilege, and reward, as well as attitudes of submission from other groups. In urban areas, demographic shifts can lead to strife, as one social group feels pushed out by another.