There’s been a recent spate of hand-wringing articles in response to the release of the 2020 U.S. Census results and the publication shortly thereafter of the 2020 provisional births data from the CDC. Yes, the U.S. population grew at the slowest rate during the last decade since the 1930s, and yes, the U.S. fertility rate is at a historic low of 1.64 births per woman. But the U.S. population is still growing by 1-2 million a year (fewer in 2020 due to Covid deaths), and projections don’t show that trend reversing for at least several more decades.
The 2020 Census counted 331,449,281 Americans, up from 308,745,538 in 2010—that’s 22.7 million more people needing housing, heating and cooling, transportation, food, jobs, education, health care, and so on. Hardly a harbinger of “demographic decline,” as some have claimed.
Not that we’d mind if it were.
Population stabilization—which is nowhere near happening at the U.S. or global level—would be a boon to everyone’s quality of life, to say nothing of the benefits to the natural world. Yes, there would be challenges to how economies are structured. But those challenges would be far easier to address than the permanent environmental tipping points that humanity is already beginning to breach and that we’ll only exceed more frequently as world population continues to grow. After all, America’s Social Security program was only introduced in 1935. Surely we can rejigger a system that has been in place for less than a century in order to preserve the only planet we have (Elon Musk’s plans to colonize Mars aside).
Americans burn more fossil fuels each day than many poor countries burn in years. There are important and compelling reasons to facilitate slower population growth in low-income countries, of course. The bulk of our advocacy work focuses on slowing growth—through voluntary family planning education and services—in high-fertility countries least equipped to meet the needs of rapidly growing populations. But there’s hardly a country on earth that rivals the U.S. in terms of per capita consumption. Despite current and looming environmental crises, Americans aren’t scrambling to give up their personal vehicles, airplane trips, single family homes, or room temperature indoor spaces (myself included). But we can reduce our ecological footprints by continuing to do what most of us want to do anyway: have small families.
We urge those with concerns about the U.S. economy to consider ways to improve per capita productivity in order to stop pinning our country’s economic future on the population Ponzi scheme. The United States has more than enough people—what it lacks is adequate investment in its population of young people who will be tomorrow’s workforce. Healthy economies don’t need more people; they need people who are more productive.
We currently have nearly 12 million children growing up in poverty in this country—let’s invest in their futures so they can become healthy, well-educated, productive adults. And let’s educate the next generation to think of themselves as citizens above consumers (our Population Education program does a superb job of this, reaching 3 million K-12 students in North America each year with lesson plans that encourage kids to become planetary stewards). If we ensured that every baby born in the U.S. had access to high-quality health care, childcare, education, and nutrition, we’d be a much more productive society than we would be simply by adding more numbers to our ranks.
Fertility decline and slowing population growth present opportunities for the U.S. to reduce climate-changing emissions, lift people out of poverty, close the inequality gap, and protect our country’s—and our planet’s—natural resources for future generations. Rather than encourage couples to have more kids, let’s embrace our low fertility reality and use it to our advantage.