George Plumb: Poverty & population

Editor’s note: This commentary is by George Plumb, the executive director of Vermonters for Sustainable Population.

2014 marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s “unconditional war on poverty.” For most of that time, and indeed to this day, economists often say that the best way to improve our economy is to grow the population because that creates more consumers and therefore more demand for goods and services including construction of new homes, more shopping places, and larger places for recreation like ski resorts.

It turns out however that growing the population doesn’t decrease poverty. This is well documented in the recently added 16th indicator for the world-precedent-setting “What is an Optimal/Sustainable Population for Vermont?” report which can be read at . The indicator shows that even though Vermont’s population has increased by a huge 50 percent since the War on Poverty began in 1964, the poverty level hasn’t decreased at all but has remained approximately the same at 12 percent.

Vermonters for Sustainable Population

Vermonters for Sustainable Population

Economists, and even political leaders, developers, and some environmentalist, also usually say that we can grow the economy while protecting the environment which scientific data trends for everything from water pollution to generation of greenhouse gas emissions has proven to be a totally false claim.

While there are several ways to measure economic well-being including GDP and median income adjusted for inflation, poverty is the most important measure because as Aristotle said, “The greatest measure of a society is the way it treats its weakest members.” The signs of poverty are all around us, including the increase in people staying in homeless shelters, the number of Vermonters on food stamps which in June of 2013 was a record high level of over 100,000 or one out of every six persons, the demand in local food shelves, people with signs begging for money, and deteriorated homes in our cities, villages and countryside.

The signs of poverty are all around us, including the increase in people staying in homeless shelters, the number of Vermonters on food stamps, the demand in local food shelves, people with signs begging for money, and deteriorated homes in our cities, villages and countryside.


It’s time for economists and political leaders to stop saying that we have to grow the population in order to grow the economy. Not only does it not reduce poverty levels it also means more people competing for jobs and as a result even lower wages forcing people to work longer hours. When I was just starting out in my professional career in the ’60s, there were usually only a handful of people at the most applying for any given position. Now, as younger people will verify, it is not at all unusual to have at least a hundred people applying for the same job opening.

The author of the Poverty Indicator in the report is Eben Fodor who is also the author of the book “Better not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community.” In concluding this indicator Eben states that, “Because there are so many variables, it is very difficult to predict what an optimum/sustainable population would be to minimize or eliminate poverty. If we were to go by the historical fact that Vermont’s lowest recorded poverty rate was in 1970, when the population was 444,330, then the optimum population might be lower than it is today.

“A stable population level has been shown to have higher levels of individual prosperity, so maintaining a stable and sustainable population appears to be the best bet for minimizing poverty. Our optimum/sustainable population estimate for a steady state economy is a population of 500,000.”

A growth forever culture with finite resources has been proven to be bad for the environment and long-term sustainability. It is also not good for the economic well-being of people.


  1. Greg Lapworth :

    Guess it goes to prove “government centralized planning” doesn’t work. China is a prime example.
    Let the “invisible hand” do its work. Avoid Socialism and Communism and you will prosper.

    • John Greenberg :

      WHAT “goes to prove “government centralized planning” doesn’t work?” Of WHAT is China “a prime example?”

      • Paul Lorenzini :

        a prime example of exporting AMERICA’ s wealth! Who makes the most plant food now John?

  2. Eric Zencey :

    This is an important truth: population growth doesn’t decrease poverty, it increases it.

    The economy creates wealth from a stream of matter and energy taken from the environment (and discarded back into it). The amount of matter and energy that the planet can sustainably offer us (and the amount of degraded matter and energy it can sustainably absorb from us) is finite. With a fixed and finite amount of wealth, the more people there, are the smaller on average each individual share must be.

    Historically, economists of the infinite-growth school have ignored this fundamental truth. They’ve done so by disagreeing with the idea that you need resources–matter and energy–to make wealth. They’ve argued that human intelligence is “the ultimate resource,” capable of doing anything, including making wealth (goods and services) using less and less matter and energy, forever. That’s mistaken. You can’t make something from nothing and you can’t make nothing from something, and no matter how inventive people are we will never invent our way around that fact.

    Because the amount of wealth that humans can create on the planet is ultimately fixed and finite, at some point the most effective way to raise the human standard of living is population control. We’ve reached that point now.

    • “Population growth doesn’t decrease poverty, it increases it.”

      Maybe, uh … check that graph again? The data suggests there is no correlation or a slightly negative correlation.

      The graph is located immediately after the second paragraph.

  3. John Grady :

    The growth Ponzi scheme was based on being able to exploit the next group of immigrants and tons of cheap land and cheap energy. The people already here did great under the system and believed they where climbing the ladder and doing better than the last generation of their family who where the last batch of exploited immigrants.

    The population of the country has doubled since 1950 and most of the growth has created gridlock in cities while the cost of housing has exploded do to a limited resource called decent and cheap land to build on. All the low hanging fruit has been harvested. The country is also looking at water shortage in many areas.

    The free market growth theory fails once cheap stuff runs out.

    Stimulating the economy threw government spending fails when lots of goods including oil are imported.

    To increased the quality of life and standard of living for everyone willing to contribute to society the waste needs to be reduced. Intervention to increase the supply of affordable housing is needed seeing how the free market has failed to provide affordable housing in Vermont.

    If the population of Vermont increases a lot the quality of life goes down do to traffic congestion and over building. How does the state provide a good standard of living for it’s citizens without becoming a magnet for over population ? The young leaving for years has keep the population down.

    We have people in total denial times have changed and we need to change with the times while other people are having some sort of panic attack and freaking out it’s a crises that needs to be addressed right now and over night while having no clue their lives depend on the dirty industrial economy including the IP Paper Mill. Most food comes in boxes, paper mills make paper that is made into boxes. Buy local doesn’t apply to paper ?

  4. Philip Beliveau :

    Spew out the tea party cliches, Greg! Let’s do away with all that socialism like public roads, schools and utilities! Blast us back to the stone age.

  5. George Webb :

    I totally agree that proverty gets worse as population increases. The only way to decrease poverty is to stabilize population, greatly increase the minimum wage, decrease taxes on lower middle income people, and greatly increase taxes on the very rich.

    • Again, I would like to register my total astonishment that adults can be shown the data and still walk away from this with a totally different conclusion. Pure ideology at work.

  6. Dave Bellini :

    Vermont has less poverty today than it did in the 1960’s. Population was less in the 60’s too.

  7. Robert Fireovid :

    The people who benefit from increased population are the rich through minimized labor costs, increased demand for natural resources (land, water, energy, etc.), and increased aggregate consumption of goods. When will we learn that growth does NOT benefit the vast majority?

  8. George Plumb :

    Thank you for your posts. I’ll admit the graph is a little deceiving. Here is the actual data.
    Year 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
    Population 389,881 444,330 511,456 562,758 608,827 625,745
    *Poverty % 23.5 9.1 12.1 9.9 9.4 12.7
    # in Poverty 91,622 40,434 61,886 55,713 57,230 79,470
    As you can see there was a sharp decline in poverty between 1960 and 1970, I guess because the economy was booming at that time with the building of the interstate. However since then I have seen clear evidence of growth in poverty although thankfully government programs have helped reduce the impact.

    If you are interested in the issue of population growth in general I invite you to take a short survey that we have just launched. It is at:

  9. Paul Lorenzini :

    The main reason for all the poverty in VT is that everything is so damn expensive, energy, property taxes, education, and in Montpelier they just keep passing laws to suck more discretionary income from the citizens, while passing out just enough to survive in the form of food stamps, socialized medicine, and tax breaks for the wealthy that have lawyers and accountants that can work all the angles of every new law.

  10. Paul Lorenzini :

    From looking at the numbers, we are right on track with the United Nations Agenda 21 Marxist solution to population growth. If we keep it up then pretty soon the glaciers will start growing again, right?

  11. Paul Lorenzini :

    Another Ice Age, that will certainly curb the unwanted growth of population, especially without a reliable source of energy for the folks in poverty. Well of course they will be forced into the urban areas, or freeze to death. Hooray for Marxism!!!!!!!!

  12. Jacob Miller :

    Mr. Plumb;

    Aristotle also contended that women exist as natural deformities or imperfect males.

    Having witnessed poverty in Vermont in the 1950’s, it is very different from what we observe in Vermont today. There was abject poverty and absolutely no “safety net”.

    Please read the history of the “Poor Farm” in Vermont at this link.

    Your essay appears to be just another attempt to promote your population control group, which you seem to do on a quarterly basis in this forum.

    With the 4th oldest population in the country and the 2nd lowest birth rate, your desire for Vermont to have a lower population will be met much sooner than you anticipate.

    The “growth” you fear will slow, however whatever “growth” occurs will be in more “urban” areas (urban in the Vermont perspective) and contribute to less environmental pollution as people live in more sustainable communities within the urban setting. They will be able to walk, bike or use public transportation to get to their employment, shopping or other goods and services to meet their daily needs.

    And finally, the fear of Vermont being inundated with “climate change refugees” is equally unfounded. There appears to be the myth, perpetuated by environmental conservation groups, that Vermont will be an “oasis” in a sea of environmental chaos. This fable is misguided, if not bizarre. However, even if thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands, fled Northeastern US from Washington DC, to Portland, Maine, where would they move to? All the land has been put into the Current Use program or the development rights have been sold. Where would they settle, George?



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