David Lam

by Susan Rosegrant
September 2009

On a plain wooden door in a long hallway on the first floor of the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is a plaque honoring David Lam with a classic line from a song by The Doors: “Break on through to the other side.” The plaque was a gift from a group of ISR colleagues, and they meant it quite literally.

Ten years ago, when Lam, as director of the Population Studies Center (PSC), wanted to move Pop Studies into the Institute, ISR offered the center a good chunk of space on the first and second floors. Lam liked the layout, but there was no quick connection between floors: You had to take an elevator or walk to a more distant staircase. Lam asked why a door couldn’t be cut through to the existing stairwell, but was told it was impossible. Lam didn’t believe it. He asked again. Then he asked again. Finally, an architect consulted the 1965 building plans, and Lam got his way. The door, Lam adds with a laugh, has become very popular. “It needs a meter on it. I insist that it’s one of the most heavily used doors in the building.”

The plaque, using the Doors line to celebrate Lam’s door victory, is apt in more ways than one. Lam, a fit 57-year-old with white hair and a moustache, wire-rimmed glasses, and a well worn face, has been breaking down barriers most of his life and he goes at it full tilt. Murray Leibbrandt, a South African economist who has collaborated closely with Lam for more than a decade, 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.”

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.

Lam 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 Pop 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 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.

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 field work 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.”

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 grade repetition. “I feel it’s the most policy relevant stuff that I’ve done,” he says. 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 recently commissioned the university to conduct a national longitudinal survey looking at some of the same issues. Murray Leibbrandt, the Cape Town economist who has worked with Lam since 1997, 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.”

Back in the United States, Lam’s schedule is full. 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 a two-year-old son. Meanwhile, Lam continues to work on the interplay between demography and economic behavior in Brazil and South Africa, such as the causes of fertility decline in developing nations and the impacts of sexual behavior on schooling. A fifth wave of the CAPS survey now underway includes voluntary HIV testing for the first time. Lam’s Michigan and national responsibilities also have grown. In addition to stepping back in to direct the Pop Studies Center in 2008, he is the director of graduate studies for the department of economics, and has been elected president of the Population Association of America.

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.”