Men make a numerical comeback

US census shows healthy sign of gender rebalancing, with 96.3 men per 100 women, up from 94.5 in 1980.

After seeing their share of the population fall for more than a century, men are staging a comeback in the United States.

From a historical low in 1980, the ratio of men to women is moving slowly back up. New Census data show that last year the nation boasted 96.3 men per 100 women - up from 94.5 in 1980. The swing is unusual for a country with a maturing population - and a sharp contrast with other developed and developing countries.

This rebalancing represents a sign of demographic health, population experts say, because it means the US does not face imminent danger from either extreme in the gender balance.

In Europe, by contrast, an aging population, dominated by women, threatens to bankrupt social and pension programs, as fewer workers support more retirees. In South Asia, some observers worry that a young, male-heavy population could one day grow restless, sparking unrest or even war.

But America's male resurgence remains uneven. Non-Latino males continue to see their share of the population fall. Minority males, particularly Hispanic men, have sparked the turnaround.

The move comes as something of a surprise. "As the baby boom [moves] up the age ladder, you'd actually expect the reverse," says Carl Haub, a demographer at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington.

Factors behind the change

That's because, typically, women live longer than men, so aging societies become feminized. By contrast, countries with very young populations tend to be male-dominated because more boys are born than girls. On average, about 105 males are born for every 100 females.

But America's unexpected rise in immigration - plus a better count of minority men in the 2000 census - probably accounts for most of the change, he adds.

Demographers remain guarded, because the data are still dribbling out of the US Census Bureau. Today, the bureau released detailed numbers on eight more states plus the District of Columbia, bringing the released total to 10 states. National figures will be released later this summer. With one-fifth of the states reporting, the trends seem clear.

Take Illinois. The share of males among non-Hispanic whites stood at 94.9 last year. But a nearly 70percent surge in the state's Hispanic population during the 1990s is rebalancing that ratio. Latino men outnumber Latino women 112.3 to 100 in the state. That allowedthe state's overall male-female ratio to climb from 94.5 in 1990 to 95.9 last year.

Males also predominate in Hispanic populations in Indiana, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, and Nevada. Even in states where Latino women hold the edge, the gap is smaller than among non-Latino whites. That means a rise in Latino populations pushes the male-to-female ratio upward.

The Census Bureau also appears to have done a much better job of counting minority males compared with the 1990 count. Even using a stricter definition for 2000 than in 1990, the African-American population in Illinois climbed 10.8 percent.

It's not clear whether the trend will create more male-dominant states.

In 1990, only Alaska, California, Hawaii, Nevada, and Wyoming had more men than women. Data haven't been released yet for four of the five. In Nevada, where 2000 data have been released, the male share edged up a bit from 103.7 in 1990 - then the second-highest ratio in the country - to 103.9. Alaska had the highest ratio of males in 1990, with 111.4 men per 100 women. Mississippi had the lowest ratio: 91.7 males per 100.

One of the likeliest candidates to join the male-dominant club - Montana - has moved within a whisker of achieving a 50-50 split between the sexes.

Although the male-female ratio is more balanced in a few less-developed countries, such as Cuba and Thailand, the US situation remains fairly balanced compared with other areas of the world.

During most of its own history - as a young, developing nation - the US boasted more men than women. One factor, in addition to the higher number of boy babies than girls, was the large number of women who died in childbirth.

America's 1950 shift

But in 1950, as the nation matured, the pendulum moved the other direction and women predominated. Demographers argue that the swing has much more to do with the greater longevity of women than, say, the ravages of World War II or Vietnam. By 1980, the ratio reached its nadir of 94.5 males per 100 females. By moving back up to 96.3 per 100 last year, the nation is showing a healthy resilience against trends that are besetting other developed countries.

Russia, for example, counts only 88.1 men for every 100 women. The situation remains a little unusual because that nation lost so many men during World War II. But the real challenge is that Russia's elderly population is growing while its number of babies is falling precipitously.

Italy retains a respectable male-female ratio - 94.4 per 100 - but it, too, faces rapid aging and a baby bust. That will likely boost the share of women. More important, it portends financial trouble, as fewer workers try to support a growing number of retirees drawing pensions and health benefits.

Italy "is basically preprogrammed for decline," says Mr. Haub of the Population Reference Bureau.

If Europe's future includes a rising proportion of elderly women, South Asia faces exactly the opposite problem: a surplus of young men. The young populations and cultural preferences for male children have produced a marked imbalance in India and South Korea. China's one-baby-per-family program has exacerbated the problem in the world's most populous country. As a result, China's latest census counted 106.7 males for every 100 females.

"Already in China, they have an increasing problem of women being kidnapped," says Jim Vittitow of the Population Research Institute, a nonprofit organization in Front Royal, Va. "You also will have, as time goes on, a huge number of men who are frustrated.... And that will be a caldron that will eventually boil over. It could cause massive unrest or be directed outward."

If the US is heading back to equilibrium, then such problems look less likely, researchers suggest.

Still, they caution that it's too early to conclude that there will be a full male rebound. "We've seen it since '80," says Renee Spraggins, a statistician with the Census Bureau. "It may be taking that turn."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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