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 www.vspop.org . 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.

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