An Eye-Opening Measure: The Vital Index

by Carl Haub, senior demographer, PRB

The vital index, the annual number of births per 100 deaths, is a simple measure but can often be eye-opening. Only a few countries publish the index on a regular basis. While that may not sound exciting at first, the measure can teach us a lot about population dynamics. Recently, the index did receive some national news: when the number of deaths of non-Hispanic whites in the United States exceeded births, for the first time in history.

In the table, we can see that the current level of the total fertility rate (TFR), or the average number of children per woman,  does not necessarily show where a country stands with regard to births and deaths. The present vital index is a result of a number of factors: how recently the TFR declined to a low level; the proportion of the population in the older ages; the number of young people who have moved into childbearing ages; and the effect of immigration, which normally consists of workers and their families who are themselves in the childbearing ages. All of these factors play into the vital indices in the table in different ways.

Germany 1.4 675,000 870,000 78
Japan 1.4          1,040,000          1,270,000 82
Europe 1.6          8,150,000          8,030,000 101
Spain 1.3              450,000              390,000 115
China 1.5        16,500,000          9,700,000 170
South Korea 1.3              484,000              267,000 181
Brazil 1.8          3,000,000          1,250,000 240
Ethiopia 4.8          3,040,000              725,000 419
Niger 7.6              845,000              195,000 433
United States 1.9          3,950,000          2,500,000 158
  Hispanic 2.2          1,025,000              152,000 674
  Non-Hispanic white 1.9          1,975,000          1,987,000 99

SOURCE: 2013 World Population Data Sheet.

In Germany, the TFR has been  low for over 40 years. In Japan, one-fourth of the population is ages 65 and older. By contrast, two African countries, Ethiopia and Niger, have very high indices due to high TFRs and very youthful populations. With time, the low fertility countries face an inevitable decrease in their indices—deaths exceeding births by an ever-growing margin.  Thus, we have two very different population dynamics in the world.

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