Grounded, with a Global Focus: David Lam leads ISR into a new era

By Susan Rosegrant
October 2015

David Lam

Photo credit: Philip Dattilo

When David Lam was invited to address the high-profile Jackson Hole Symposium sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, he thought a lot about how to illustrate a paradoxical population change to the world’s top central bankers. To preserve the rustic feel of the event, PowerPoint presentations are not allowed. “In 2100, there will be about 4 billion more people in the world,” Lam said, “but the number of children will be about the same as the number today,” he said. It’s not because people are living longer, Lam explained. It’s due to what demographers call population momentum – in most areas of the world, birth rates have declined, but current birth cohorts are still much larger than the old cohorts that are dying and this causes the population to grow even though the number of children does not increase. Lam wound up using stacks of Lego Duplos to show the shifts. “It worked pretty well,” he said. “I kept running into people at the conference who’d say, ‘Oh, you’re the Lego guy.’”

The 2014 Jackson Hole talk grew out of Lam’s work with Murray Leibbrandt, a South African economist he’s collaborated with for nearly two decades now. Lately they’ve been working on the impact the coming demographic changes will have on the global labor force, and have presented some of their findings at conferences sponsored by the United Nations and the National Academy of Sciences. “The last 40 years has been dominated by the growth of young, mainly unskilled workers,” says Lam, who was appointed Director of the U-M Institute for Social Research in 2015. “That’s basically over. The number of young workers in China and even India has stopped growing, and these workers are now fairly well educated. Increases in the labor force over the next 40 years will come from older, skilled workers. So global competition will be very different than it has been.”

Lam, a fit 63-year-old with white hair and a moustache, wire-rimmed glasses, and a well-worn face, remains optimistic about the increase in the world’s population. His 2011 Presidential Address to the Population Association of America, “How the World Survived the Population Bomb: Lessons from 50 Years of Exceptional Demographic History,” made the case that human ingenuity is up to the task of meeting population-based demands. “The world is producing three times as much food today as in 1960,” he told the PAA, “and the population is two times what it was in 1960, so there’s 41 percent higher food production per capita.” The next 4 billion people will be added over 90 years, he notes, while the last 4 billion was added in 60 years. “So it’s still a challenge that we’re facing, but a less daunting one than we’ve had previously.”

Lam took a circuitous route to becoming one of the world’s leading scholars in economic demography. But he doesn’t regret the detours he took along the way. He grew up in Durango, Colorado, notable both for its rugged beauty and for the invisible line that divided the town—Anglos on one side, Mexicans on the other. Lam rebelled against that line and, as a teenager, threw his energy into studying Spanish and traveling to Mexico. At Colorado College he cobbled together a major in Latin American studies built around Spanish, political science, and anthropology.

Young David LamLam shared his fascination with “lefty” Latin American politics and travel with Tina, his girlfriend since high school and a fellow Latin American studies major. In 1972, at the age of 20, the couple married, quit school, and drove to Mexico. “We had this wild idea that we were going to drive this van all the way to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America,” Lam says. A car accident, a robbery, and running out of money all helped scuttle that goal. Still, the Lams spent a year in Mexico, and came back with their idealism and love of travel mostly intact. They had a son, Gabe, when they were 23, finished their degrees at Ft. Lewis College in Durango, and moved to Austin, where Lam began a master’s in Latin American Studies at the University of Texas.

In high school Lam had enjoyed mathematics, for which he had a knack, but as an undergrad he had avoided it. “I had this sense math was irrelevant—why would you take this stuff?” he recalls. Then the graduate director of his program talked him into taking a course in the economics of Latin America. “I hadn’t had any economics, and I didn’t have any of the prerequisites for the course,” Lam recalls. “But I took it and it was one of those why-have-people-been-keeping-this-from-me moments. This is what I should be doing! Then I had the zeal of the converted and decided economics was the way to look at everything.” Lam went on to get a master’s degree in demography and a Ph.D. in economics from Berkeley. In 1983 he became an assistant professor in economics at the University of Michigan and an assistant research scientist at the university’s Population Studies Center. (Tina, who had earned a master’s in journalism from Berkeley, became a reporter at The Ann Arbor News and later The Detroit Free Press.)

It wasn’t long before Lam stumbled on an opportunity to combine micro-economics with his old love—Latin America. As part of a National Academy of Sciences panel on the economic impact of population growth, Lam was commissioned to write a paper about population growth and inequality. A senior member of the panel suggested he focus on Brazil, whose National Statistical Agency had been collecting extensive data from about 100,000 households since 1976. The data was a goldmine, Lam says, and in 1989, he returned to Brazil as a Fulbright Scholar, focusing attention on the role of education in perpetuating, rather than mitigating, the country’s pronounced economic inequality. “Brazil by some measures is twice as unequal as the US, and that can almost entirely be explained by the difference in education,” Lam says.

The promise of Lam’s research in Brazil and his growing reputation as a scholar and collaborator did not go unnoticed. In 1994, as an associate professor, he was recruited to become director of the Pop Studies Center. Among the accomplishments of his nine-year term was the center’s move from the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts to ISR. Observers say the repositioning led to more grants and greater collaboration with researchers from other disciplines, strengthening the center both financially and intellectually.

The year Lam became PSC director, apartheid ended in South Africa and delegations of academics from South Africa began visiting Michigan and other US universities. “While self confident, very bright, and well trained,” Lam says, “they had the sense that they’d been out of the loop for decades, and they really wanted to be engaged with other universities.” Lam found his interest piqued and shortly after traveled to the University of Cape Town, where he says he “fell in love” with both the place and the research possibilities. He spent his sabbatical year there in 1997 on a Fulbright fellowship, researching education issues and helping write a grant to start a capacity building program in demography and data survey analysis.

Lam in South Africa

Frequent visits over the next few years—Lam to South Africa and University of Cape Town peers to Ann Arbor—only strengthened the ties between the two institutions. In 2002, Lam helped his Cape Town colleagues, researchers who had worked on issues of poverty and inequality for their whole careers, launch the Cape Area Panel Study (CAPS). The ambitious longitudinal study of 4,800 young people between the ages of 14 and 22, as well as their families and households, was the first-ever look at the education, employment, health, sexual behavior, fertility, and living arrangements of this population. In 2004, Lam returned to Cape Town for a two-year leave. “I went on sabbatical thinking I was going to get all kinds of research done,” Lam recalls. Instead, he took over the day-to-day management of CAPS.

Lam had never collected his own data before, and reports that running the study was a humbling experience. For one thing, Cape Town was a challenging place to work. There were three population groups to study, each with its own distinct culture and language. Most black Africans spoke Xhosa and lived in poor townships on the fringes of Cape Town, while most whites spoke English or Afrikaans and lived in secure gated communities. The so-called “colored” or mixed-race population, largely descended from slaves imported from Malaysia and Indonesia by the Dutch, typically spoke Afrikaans and also lived in segregated communities.

The university researchers hired a survey research firm for both the white and the colored areas, Lam says: High security and resistance to interviewers made the white areas hard to penetrate, and the colored communities were beset by drug wars and gangs, requiring special knowledge of how and where to operate. But the university managed the fieldwork in the black townships, hiring black field workers from the areas to be surveyed. Lam went out with field workers three or four times during each of the four waves of research, conducted from 2002 to 2006. (He would have gone more often, he says, but it was a distraction for the field workers, who wanted to make sure that their conspicuous white companion was safe.) Finding the correct addresses in neighborhoods with no street signs was challenging, he says, but residents were usually welcoming. “Unemployment is high, so there were lots of people around,” Lam recalls. “People would come up and ask, ‘Why aren’t you coming to my house?’”

Even so, communication could easily go awry, and workers had to be trained to scrutinize the data carefully, picking up important discrepancies, such as the woman whose answers in successive years indicated she had had a baby before the first time she had sex. In that case, a field worker went back and tried again. “It’s very eye opening,” Lam says wryly. “I always say I’m never going to criticize anyone’s data ever again.” Still, participating in the field work was essential, Lam says, in helping him think more clearly about what kinds of questions were relevant, and how to ask them. Colleagues add that Lam’s immersion in hands-on activities is part of what has made him such an effective teacher. “Often researchers are working on things that are far removed from their own experiences as members of the academy,” says assistant professor Martha Bailey, who co-teaches Economics of Population with Lam. “He actually knows a lot about what is affecting people’s lives.”

Leibbrandt, the South African economist who has collaborated closely with Lam on CAPS and subsequent projects, calls it the “Lam Package.” When Lam went to do research at the University of Cape Town, he didn’t just sit at a desk, construct a survey, and then pack up and write papers about the data. He got out in the field to see how people lived. He studied two of the local languages. He helped tailor the questionnaires to local circumstances. And he spent time tramping around with field workers. “Other influential academics have blundered into the country and gotten people’s backs up,” Leibbrandt says. “Here’s the thing about David as a researcher. He’s a very smart guy and he’s world class, but he has no airs and graces about him.”

The data from CAPS gave researchers a window into specific challenges facing the South African educational system, Lam says, and also allowed illuminating comparisons with Brazil. In some ways, the two countries—both among the world’s most unequal societies—are quite different. For example, inequality in Brazil is largely perpetuated through the education system, he says, while in South Africa, racial discrimination in the job market is the greater barrier to equality. But both countries regularly fail students, sometimes forcing them to repeat grades more than once. “In addition to all the other things bad schools do badly, they evaluate badly,” Lam says. “And when they’re failing a lot of kids, they’re often failing the wrong kids and passing the wrong kids.” This can hurt both the schools and the students: Repeat students clog up classrooms, use extra resources, and enter the workforce later than they should. In addition, combining younger students with those who have been held back one or more times may contribute to earlier sexual activity.

Lam is hopeful that the Cape Area Panel Study will help push South African policy makers to address difficult topics like inequality and grade repetition. “I feel it’s the most policy relevant stuff that I’ve done,” says Lam, who was made an honorary professor of economics at the University of Cape Town in 2013. In the meantime, he points with pleasure at the ability of his South African colleagues to conduct surveys and analyze the data. Based on the CAPS work, the South African government commissioned the university to conduct a national longitudinal survey, the National Income Dynamics Study, modeled on ISR’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics, looking at some of the same issues. Leibbrandt says Lam’s commitment to rigorous research was key to their accomplishments. “By working with him, you get better. He has influenced a whole range of us to do better work.”

Lam on a horse in DurangoBack in the United States, he and Tina squeeze in regular trips to Durango, where they now own the house Lam grew up in. And they are making special efforts to spend time in San Francisco, where their son Gabe and his wife have an 8-year-old son, a 2 ½ year old daughter and new baby girl on the way. Meanwhile, Lam continues to work on the interplay between demography and economic behavior in Brazil and South Africa, and on the demography of the labor force in emerging markets. He’s an active member of the African Social Research Initiative at U-M, and looks forward to increasing partnerships between ISR and other units on the Michigan campus. Since resigning his position as chair of the U-M Department of Economics to become ISR Director in July 2015, Lam’s days are fuller than ever. He looks forward to expanding outreach and advocacy for social science among the policy community and to expanding ISR’s international portfolio and long-term partnerships around the globe.

Such activities are typical of Lam’s “public mindedness,” says Robert Schoeni, a longtime colleague and Pop Studies research professor. “Many of the benefits of what he does are reaped by other researchers and the scientific community as a whole, not just himself,” Schoeni says. About 20 years ago, when Schoeni was a “young and naïve” graduate student, Lam invited him to spend a month in Brazil. Lam found Schoeni a place to stay, included him in family activities, and pulled him into the research. It was the sort of generous gesture, Schoeni says, that Lam has become known for. “He extended all kinds of opportunities to allow me to grow,” he says. “It was an absolutely life changing experience.”