Another case where people see the problem as a solution, so keep stepping on the gas: Population Growth

June 27, 2023 by Joshua
in Education, Nature

Most times governments intervene in population, they push population growth. Why? Because they believe more people means more workers and consumers, which they believe will create jobs and help everyone.

Podcast guest Jane O’Sullivan‘s 2017 paper “The contribution of reduced population growth rate to demographic dividend” concludes that population growth costs more than it benefits. It requires paying for infrastructure and more. She points out that lowering population growth were “not driven by economic advance but by voluntary family planning programs, and that these transitions generated enormous economic benefits for adopting countries.” In other words, we shouldn’t be pushing economic growth if we want to stabilize or lower population growth, but deliberate voluntary family planning programs. People did so in the 1970s, but stopped.

By pushing population growth, we cause the problem population growth was supposed to solve, leading to pushing population growth more, leading to an accelerating death spiral, like building roads to decrease congestion caused by building more roads.

Don’t take my interpretation. Here are the paper’s conclusion, with my emphasis:

One means for its measurement is described in this paper, which reveals population growth to be a formidable economic millstone.

Voluntary family planning programs were regarded as vital components of poverty eradication in the 1970s. Bongaarts (2016a) attributed their loss of priority to a shift in views among economists, who argued either that population growth was not relevant to economic development, or that family planning interventions were ineffective in influencing population growth, or both. Consequently, family planning was reframed only as an issue of women’s health and rights, competing among many pressing needs in health agenda. Political and financial support faded, so that the shift has ironically been to the great detriment of women’s health and rights.

As Bongaarts (2016a) notes, almost no recent modelling of future socioeconomic and environmental outcomes examine alternative population trajectories, reflecting the prevailing view that future population growth is not amenable to policy interventions. Hence the wide-reaching benefits of a lower population path have remained relatively unstudied. In the world of socio-economic policy, messaging speaks louder than data. The message of ‘social capital’, compounded by increasing population density, was a seductive argument for the cornucopian optimism championed by Simon (1981) and sustained during the 1980s-90s. The message of ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’ adopted after the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, was supposed to incentivise universal access to contraception without the need for economic or demographic motives but has failed to sustain political will for family planning services. Oblique references to “how population dynamics affect the major development challenges of the 21st century” (UNFPA et al. 2013) dog-whistle to those who harbour concern about population growth that it is still on the agenda, but remain obscure to those whose political will is being sought.

The message of the demographic dividend is that reducing fertility may offer a window of improved economic performance, if certain conditions are met. The impression given is that this benefit is optional, conditional and ephemeral. The message of the infrastructure dividend is that lowering fertility is an absolute prerequisite for sustained economic advance. To delay fertility decline is to delay development.

It is concluded that the most rapid fertility transitions were not driven by economic advance but by voluntary family planning programs, and that these transitions generated enormous economic benefits for adopting countries. The ‘infrastructure dividend’ explains this economic stimulus to an extent that changes in age structure do not. The narrative of demographic dividend has been useful in motivating family planning effort and investment in youth, but its misrepresentation as purely a function of age dependency ratios risks distracting from the necessity to bring fertility to below replacement level (O’Sullivan and Martin 2016). Greater appreciation of the economic impost of population growth rate will allow better targeted interventions.

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