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Yes, population decline is bad

I just wrote a column for America magazine about population decline in the United States and how to prevent it. Hint: "Given the limitations of family-friendly government policies, there is no way to stave off population decline without turning to immigration, which accounted for more than half (55 percent) of U.S. population growth between 1965 and 2015."

U.S. native and foreign born population increases (1860-2019)-2And people may forget that for a good part of the 20th century, between the highly restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 and its essentially being repealed in 1965, the number of immigrants in the United States steadily fell. (See my crude chart below.)

After I shared my column with a Facebook discussion group (a closed group, so I can't reveal comments), some people countered that it would be a great thing for the planet if there were fewer people living on it. This reminded me that decades ago, I wrote an article for the Boston Phoenix arguing that Boston’s severe population decline was a threat to its economy and quality of life, earning me angry letters from people complaining that the subway was still too crowded and movie lines were still too long. Unlike places like Detroit and St. Louis, Boston has since stopped emptying out and started to grow again. Its revival has come with increased economic inequality, but would it be better off with if its exodus had continued?

There could be environmental benefits to lower or negative population growth, but it will also come with lower economic activity (why invest in a declining market?), lower tax revenue for social services and Social Security, and a shortage of workers, including health care workers who care for the elderly. And the environmental benefits are not uniform: When there are fewer people on public transit, the unavoidable solution is to reduce or eliminate public transit. 

So there are trade-offs in any scenario. And people in Detroit and other major cities can tell you that population loss does not usually improve the quality of life.

If population decline is in fact necessary save the planet, we may have to accept a period of little innovation and declining living conditions (i.e., fewer consumer goods being produced by fewer workers). There is no scenario in which no one suffers.If population decline is necessary, we may have to accept a period of little innovation and declining living conditions (i.e., fewer consumer goods being produced by fewer workers). There is no scenario in which no one suffers.

U.S. native and foreign born population increases (1860-2019)-2


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  • Write to me at robertdavidsullivan at gmail dot com.