Powell: Population growth makes our problems harder to resolve

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Mark Powell, who is the secretary of Vermonters for Sustainable Population.  He lives in Worcester.

Although the U.S. was approaching a stabilized population as recently as 1980, we are now experiencing the longest running growth spurt in the history of the developed world. In spite of this, our nation’s legislative body proposes even more rapid population growth in the form of comprehensive immigration reform. These changes will boost our demographic profile still further beyond our already unsustainable growth. I call on Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to truthfully advise the American people of the implications of this legislation for the future growth of our population.

Recently, the White House Council of Economic Advisers endorsed population growth as a remedy for current and future economic woes. “U.S. population growth is projected to fall almost in half over the next three decades,”[i] the report states, but it doesn’t mention that the growth of the past 30 years — the growth implicitly regarded as desirable — has been unprecedented and unsustainable. The report adds, “Immigrants increase the size of the population and thus of the labor force and customer base, making an important contribution to economic growth.”

Although there is much talk these days of America’s declining fertility, the premise of a drastic slowing in our population growth is misleading, as can be readily evidenced by comparing our own growth and that of the European Union. Back in 1980, the combined population of those 27 countries was double the 225 million counted in that year’s U.S Census. Since then, however, the EU population has increased by only 10 percent, while the U.S. grew by 40 percent, adding 100 million people. Under existing policy, the Census Bureau projects 100 million more people by 2060, while the EU will remain virtually unchanged. We will grow even faster with the proposed changes in immigration; many young Americans would probably live to see the U.S. reach half a billion people, a threshold never before crossed by an industrial nation.

The arguments in favor of continued population growth are based on the flawed assumption that only by maintaining past levels of growth can we hope for a more prosperous future. But how well has this rapid growth served us today?

While the national debate about immigration reform focuses primarily on the status of undocumented persons, with a bit of debate about high-skilled and low-skilled visas, impacts on U.S. population growth are virtually ignored. That really needs to be addressed openly, and the White House statement about the economic benefits of population growth begs the question: If adding 100 million more people in 45 years won’t sustain our economy, how many millions more do we need to ensure prosperity?

Not so long ago, many environmentalists publicly spoke about the hazards driven by rapid demographic growth in the world’s largest industrial nation. After all, the more modest population growth in Europe has been paralleled by their growing embrace of renewable technologies and more efficient use of nonrenewables.

Americans, meanwhile, have pursued these advances only reluctantly, greatly magnifying the greenhouse emissions driven by our rapidly increasing numbers. Unfortunately, the scientifically grounded views expressed by a few realistic environmentalists are often subverted by politics. Among progressives, the debate about U.S. population growth has been embargoed by a kind of 21st century Left-wing McCarthyism. Environmentalists who publicly express concern about U.S. growth will quickly face accusations of “green racism.”

The arguments in favor of continued population growth are based on the flawed assumption that only by maintaining past levels of growth can we hope for a more prosperous future. But how well has this rapid growth served us today?

We certainly can’t expect that further growth in our population will alleviate America’s growing economic inequality. The disparity between rich and poor has increased substantially as our population has rapidly grown since the late 1980s, and the middle class is feeling the squeeze. It’s not hard to see why; as the supply of labor has increased, prevailing wages have stagnated relative to the cost of living. This may help to explain why the business community is so enthusiastic about immigration reform.

In the same vein, we struggle today with high unemployment, and millions of workers, including skilled workers, have fallen through the cracks. How does an increase in our workforce, in this difficult economic moment, make it easier to get them back to work?

We certainly should not expect this continued growth to improve our educational outcomes; as the population has rapidly grown over the last quarter-century, we have been falling behind in our math and science scores. It’s true that many of our schools are struggling with declining enrollment, but other schools face crowded classrooms and have trouble recruiting qualified teachers.

This growth in our population has neither reduced our dependence on foreign sources of energy nor decreased our carbon footprint. Even as we develop more efficient technologies for industry and transportation, growth in our population has pushed national energy consumption and greenhouse gas production still higher.

If the federal government really believes that continued rapid population growth is somehow going to make life better for our children and grandchildren, then they need to say so and make that case to the American people. But the White House Council of Economic Advisers should not be pretending that we are in danger of demographic implosion and our economy can only be kept afloat with continued population growth. This deceptive spin calling for continued expansion of our population will make life harder for American families and further disrupt the climate from which our children and grandchildren will have to draw sustenance and seek shelter.

[i]http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/fact_sheet_the_economic_case_for_commonsense_immigration_reform_from_the_erp_2013_final.pdf

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