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The U.S. impending population crisis

Fri, Nov 17th, 2006
Posted in Commentary

Recently we were informed that the U.S. population had just reached the 300 million mark. The announcement was made by most media outlets with little detectable alarm. It was stated as a matter-of-fact occurrence and supplemented with various population trends within that number - not surprisingly, high birth rates, immigration, and increased longevity to name a few. I was taken aback by how little attention and discussion this benchmark received by both the electronic and print media. As a long-time member of the organization ZPG (Zero Population Growth), I was more than a little alarmed.

Since the length of time it takes to add each 100 million in this country has been drastically and frighteningly decreasing from 100 years a century ago to mere decades now (Estimates are that we will reach 400 million by 2043), why aren't we ringing the alarm bells? We have always been led to believe that overpopulation was something that existed in other parts of the world like China, India, and Africa, but we are closing that gap much too rapidly. Another reason why we do not address this impending crisis may be that we still subconsciously attach some level of outmoded reverence or admiration for large family units - more than likely a vestige of our frontier, pioneer mentality. In our great grandparents' day, large families were considered a necessity given the high infant and childhood mortality rate and the need for many hands to help with the labor-intensive, back-breaking work on the prairie. Obviously those conditions no longer exist. Also, there may be fear that any suggestion of fertility limitation would contradict a perceived democratic principle of reproductive freedom.

It would seem, though, that the time has come to face some stark realities about what is actually happening concerning population trends in this country and how we compare to other parts of the world. For example, the United States is now the world's third most populous country, after China and India, and has the highest fertility rate of all industrialized nations. Fertility, or births per woman, contributes to our population growth and must be addressed in order to achieve population stabilization. Keep in mind that replacement level fertility is generally considered by most experts in the field to be 2.1 children per woman because of infant mortality.

Although the fertility rate for "Anglo" Americans is slightly below that magic number of 2.1 (2.03 or 2.06, depending upon which study is cited), the birth rate for various rapidly-increasing subgroups in this country is quite another story. For example, Hispanics have the highest rate at 2.8, followed by Asians at 2.3, and Blacks at 2.2. Opinions differ as to why fertility rates are higher for these subgroups; but since high fertility is more common at low socio-economic levels among all groups and since a higher percentage of these subgroups fall into or near the poverty level, that is more than likely the explanation. What is cause for concern is that after a decade of decline, births in this country among all groups has been increasing since 2000. We are in grave danger of surpassing the 2.1 level if we have not already done so. By way of comparison Europe's aggregate fertility varies between approximately l.3 and l.5, depending upon the region, and Japan is at 1.3. Since China's one-child family policy was instituted, its fertility rate has dropped to 1.7.

It would seem that the time has come for all of us as American citizens to start asking some difficult questions. When do we as a nation and as individuals start taking our booming population growth seriously? When we reach 400 million? 600 million? One billion? Or do we start now? Are we going to wait until it is an unmanageable crisis as seems to be the case now with our ignoring the consequences of global warming for so many years? Do we wait for government intervention as is the case in China? Has the time come for a serious national dialogue on this issue?

But there are even harder, more personal and sensitive questions that need to be addressed. To what extent is immigration the problem? If it is a significant issue, how do we address it? Will there be a point in the future when it will be morally unacceptable for a couple to have more than two children? Are we already at that point? Should there be extenuating circumstances when more than two children are acceptable? What are these circumstances? Is there a need to balance what some may consider the basic human right of reproduction with the detrimental effects of overpopulation that in the end affects the quality of life for everyone else? More specifically, if a couple's desire to have a large family puts additional stress on the local infrastructure, like schools and other goods and services, resulting in other children to suffer, is that fair? Or is that their inherent right?

Again, these are difficult and sensitive questions, but ignoring them and pretending we don't have a population problem only delays the time when we will be forced to confront these very issues. By then it may be too late.

Herb Panko lives in Chatfield.

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