U.S. Population Growth Hasn’t Ended (Unfortunately), Despite What Some Reporters Say

While it’s exciting to finally start seeing articles about population in the news, unfortunately, most of them are bemoaning a so-called U.S. “population bust” and “demographic stagnation.” The vast majority of top-ranked comments (select the Reader Picks tab) on these articles support our position: that 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.

This spate of recent hand-wringing articles is a response to the release of the 2020 U.S. Census results and the release shortly thereafter of the 2020 provisional births data from the CDC. The 2020 Census counted 331,449,281 Americans, up from 308,745,538 in 2010—that’s 22.7 million more Americans needing housing, heating and cooling, transportation, food, jobs, education, healthcare, and so on.

And yet, The New York Times printed an article asserting that there’s a “population bust”; a Bloomberg columnist said, “Global depopulation is the looming existential threat that no one is talking about”; The Economist wrote that “global shrinkage looms”; and The Washington Post wrote about “the challenge of population stagnation” in one editorial and warned that “without robust population growth … there is no prospect of repairing the fraying social safety net that supports an aging population of retired Americans” in another one. A quick Google search yields dozens more examples from the past couple of months.

Threats – Imaginary and Real

Some journalists would have you believe that the following [rare] developments are cause for panic: In Germany, housing developments being razed to make way for parks, and shrinking towns becoming more attractive to home buyers due to their smaller scale. In South Korea, illiterate elderly people attending school to learn how to read alongside children, and nature growing up through playgrounds no longer used. In Europe, forests regrowing in unused fields, and a recent resurgence of large carnivores. In Japan, Asian black bears scavenging nuts and fruits in old fields and neglected gardens of rural towns losing residents.

The horror.

Seriously, though. “Population decline”—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 will be challenges to how economies are structured. But those challenges are 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.

Our world is already overpopulated. Just imagine how much less stress we’d place on the natural world if there were only half as many of us. Even when that was the case in 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. raised the alarm about the “modern plague of overpopulation.”

Opportunities

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 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. And we don’t see the majority of Americans volunteering to give up their cars, single family homes, air conditioning, or fast fashion any time soon. Perhaps the easiest way for Americans to reduce our ecological footprint is for us to continue having smaller families and slowing the number of people we add to the ranks of future consumers in this country.

It is, after all, people who consume natural resources, destroy wildlife habitats, and produce climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. For the sake of our planet and of future generations, shouldn’t we celebrate the slower addition of new consumers and polluters?

And a Solution: Invest in Children

If it’s the economy that concerns the authors of the above-cited articles, we urge them to look at ways to improve per capita productivity. We should not pin our country’s economic future on the population Ponzi scheme. The United States has more than enough people—and we’re adding over 1.1 million more every year. What it lacks is adequate investment in its population of young people who will be tomorrow’s workforce. And, of course, we need to educate the next generation to think of themselves as citizens, not consumers.

We have 10.5 million children growing up in poverty—let’s invest in the futures of those children so they can become healthy, well-educated, productive adults. Better educated people also tend to contribute to slower population growth through lower fertility.

Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote, “America simply needs more babies,” (we disagree!) and said that we’re pushing “toward population decline” as a result of our “fertility collapse.” Provocative click-bait phrases aside, he spends most of the piece outlining how this country can make parenthood more affordable—and of course, child tax credits and welfare benefits mean children grow up with more financial security. It’s always strange when we find ourselves agreeing even partially with someone like Mr. Douthat, but in this case, he’s got it right: Investing in children is a plan that should align folks from both sides of the aisle. Healthy societies don’t need more people; they need people who are more productive who make what we consider to be better choices.

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. And this could provide a sound pathway to population stabilization.


This Is a “Good Crisis”

We published a book several years ago about these topics and more. You can read and download the PDF version of The Good Crisis: How Population Stabilization Can Foster a Healthy U.S. Economy for free here. Hard copies can be purchased on Amazon.


 

8 thoughts on “U.S. Population Growth Hasn’t Ended (Unfortunately), Despite What Some Reporters Say

  1. Overpopulation leads to overcrowding which can lead to a sense of violation of one’s personal space. The ongoing anxiety associated with this personal intrusion easily leads to human violence beginning with verbal assaults and sometimes escalating into physical altercations, all too frequently leading to serious injury and sometimes death.

    If the concept of no more than TWO children per family could be successfully promoted, not just in our country, but throughout the world. a great balance between the human and natural world could begin to be established.

    Let us be so fortunate as to have world leaders and thinkers finally envision the need to control population growth before the ensuing damage is irreversible.

  2. I believe the world is grotesquely overpopulated with humans, so I agree with you, but the newspaper articles you cite are mostly concerned with the social security question: how does a smaller base of young people pay for benefits for the a much larger cohort of the elderly? Maybe the answer is that social security taxes have to be raised significantly throughout one’s working life. How do you answer the question.

    • A shrinking base of working-age people is being accompanied by a shrinking (relative) population of dependent young people. Often, these articles only look at the ratio of working-age to elderly people and don’t take into consideration that most people in this country aren’t economically productive until their twenties. Additionally, bringing more people into the workforce who have been historically excluded will increase the worker base.

      No doubt, adjustments will need to be made in all sorts of areas of our national infrastructure as our demographics continue to skew older. But these adjustments are a lot easier to accommodate than continued environmental destruction at the hands of population growth. And anyway, once it’s part of a country’s culture to have small families, there’s no evidence that the trend can be reversed. Some countries have tried to increase their birth rates (Japan, Russia, Singapore, China—ironically, Italy, etc.), but with very little or no “success.” The more relevant question is, “How will we adjust to the changing demographic makeup of our country,” not, “What can we do to reverse these demographic changes?”

      Thanks for reading and for for raising an important question!

  3. Thanks for this corrective piece! Overpopulation is also stimulating migration–aided also by wars and political turmoil. That migration is then stimulating ultra-nationalistic policies all over the world, but especially in Europe and the U.S.

  4. Thank you for your important and incisive article. On this beautiful June afternoon, I am looking out my window over the trees and farmland of my town, knowing that developers are trying to turn it into the hideous tightly-packed apartment complexes like those only a half-mile in the other direction. No plans for more parks, schools, jobs, roads, or healthcare for the projected new residents. What are we thinking?
    It is also important that we think globally. Giving birth to more Americans not only diminishes the condition of our lives and that of the animal and plant life of this country, but the American lifestyle is largely responsible for the devastation of the Amazon for beef production, of Indonesia and Borneo for palm oil, of the Caribbean and Pacific for sugar, of the Middle East and SE Asia for petroleum, Africa for minerals, India and Mexico for labor, etc. etc. etc.. Americans have told me, ‘Oh, people in the Third World shouldn’t have children; they can’t afford to provide a good life for them. But I can have as many as I want – I can give them the best.’ This is backwards; we are the problem.
    And please, everyone, check out the importance of veganism; here’s an excellent source: http://www.worldpeacediet.com

  5. Marian Starkey is brilliantly insightful!

    As a retired septuagenarian, I am offended by the insinuation that the likes of me are a burden to be borne by the younger members of society. I have behaved responsibly during my lifetime and am prepared for my later, “non-working” years. I am appalled by the waste of resources and the thoughtless consumption that defines our society. What ever happened to cloth diapers, for example? I have lived in the same area of Colorado for most of my life, and I have seen firsthand the changes that occur when the local population increases dramatically and humans occupy an increasing percentage of the land… and destroy all of it with “recreation.” It sucks.

  6. I agree. An economy that depends on population growth is ultimately a giant pyramid scheme, and, like all pyramid schemes, leaves the bulk of the participants poor. And it will also accelerate the ruination of the natural world. Economists, instead of insisting that population growth is essential, should be working on ways to help economies be healthier as populations stop growing, or even shrink. Some things are clear already. As a population stops growing, it is helpful to ask workers to delay retirement — work longer. Increased mechanization is also helpful. A shrinking population automatically tends to increase per-capita wealth. It could cause an increase in per-capita income as well. If there is a shortage of workers, wages will rise, and that will motivate employers to mechanize more. The US lags some other advanced countries in mechanization in agriculture and industry. That is because we have had too good a supply of cheap labor. Have people work longer, and pay them more, and we will transition gracefully to a stable or shrinking population. We can eliminate poverty and save the environment at the same time.

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