Policy commentary

Is Population Still an Important Policy Issue?

Oct 27, 2008 | Warren C. Robinson

Demographic factors have been the driving force behind much of human history, but for most of the 1960s and 1970s only one demographic dimension, population growth, dominated the public policy agenda. The sudden rise in population growth rates in Asia, Africa, and Latin America lead many development specialists to conclude that rapid population growth made increasing global per capita economic growth difficult if not impossible. As these research findings became clear in the late 1960s, there was an outpouring of alarmist popular works on the “population bomb,” with some arguing that it was already too late to reverse these ominous trends. Spaceship Earth might already be doomed. 

But governmental policies and programs aimed at reducing human fertility were developed and adopted around the world to nearly universal approval. These family planning programs, together with the economic and social progress achieved in many developing nations, have had an impact. Population growth has fallen sharply and total world population is now projected to level off toward the end of this century at some 8 to 10 billion people, far below previous forecasts. This very success has led some to draw the conclusion that, having defused the population bomb, demographic concerns no longer are important on the public policy agenda. Here I will examine some issues that suggest that such a conclusion may be premature.

Why Population Policies Still Matter

First, even accepting the likely prospect of eventual global population stabilization, a considerable amount of further absolute growth will occur in the three to four generations required for a global equilibrium to arise. Due to demographic momentum, this growth will continue to put pressure on employment, education, and health (particularly in urban areas) and require continuing and expanding programs already in place, even if this growth is only temporary.

Second, most of this growth will be in the poorest regions. These policies and programs have barely begun to have an impact on sub-Saharan Africa, parts of South Asia, and the Caribbean. Fertility and potential growth there remain high. Moreover, family planning programs that increase access to contraception are an important component of the reproductive and infant health measures urgently needed to deal with the HIV-AIDS epidemic and related health issues in these same regions. These new threats make these programs more imperative than ever.

Third, large prospective population increases will continue to power large international migration streams, mainly from the poor areas of Africa, Latin America, and South Asia to the developed nations. Even with no population growth, income differentials would cause such movements but the larger the base population, the greater the migration. These movements will require policy and program reactions at both the sending and receiving ends.

 Global Population Density
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Fig. 1
2000 World Population Density
  Fourth, sustained low fertility in the developed nations—Europe, North America, and some Asian countries—is leading to a sharp relative increase in the older age groups and will create a growing inter-generational transfer burden to carry out already existing social insurance programs. This problem is exacerbated if fertility remains below replacement level because succeeding cohorts become progressively smaller. Recent policy and program initiatives in some European countries have attempted with some success, through public support to daycare centers and subsidized maternal and child and health programs, to increase fertility. On the other hand, human longevity continues to increase, adding to the retirement burden. These age structure-rooted issues will remain on the public policy agenda for decades to come.

Population—in terms of size, growth, distribution, and composition—will shape many of the issues with which economic and social policymakers will grapple in the decades to come.

Arguments against Population Policies—Past and Future

All the above discussion takes for granted the desirability of public policy and program interventions to affect social and economic outcomes connected with population. But it is also possible to maintain that such interventions interfere with built-in structural adjustment processes that would produce an outcome without public policy or program. This may be thought of as the “invisible hand” solution. The demographic, economic, and social systems may very well tend toward equilibrium if left to their own internal dynamics. From the very outset of family planning programs, some critics have pursued this line of argument and held that family planning programs were unnecessary over the long run.

The great wave of concern over the population bomb in the 1960s and ‘70s swept these criticisms aside, but now, with the bomb defused, the critics have returned with a renewed vigor, arguing that population never belonged on the public policy agenda, pointing out that since fertility is typically lower for educated, middle-class couples, birth rates would have fallen naturally with development. These programs, moreover, are further indicted as ethically flawed. After all, fertility is the result of the most intimate and personal interactions imaginable among human couples. Observed outcomes are those desired by the couples involved. Surely public-sector efforts to intervene in these processes are inherently coercive and destructive of human reproductive rights, critics argue.

Ethical issues cannot be settled by debate, but it is worth pointing out that throughout recorded human history, societies operating with a fixed resource base and relatively constant technology have recognized the need to balance population with resources. Fertility decisions made by couples can create externalities—sharp declines in marginal productivity and environmental degradation—that affect the viability of the larger group. Societies have used a variety of measures, ranging from control over access to marriage to infanticide to control population size. Modern family planning programs appear quite benign in comparison.

Would fertility have, indeed, fallen in the developing world with no program intervention? This point cannot be proven one way or the other. But it has been established, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the programs did have an impact. At the very least, they did help lower fertility by supplying information and safe, more-effective contraceptive means to couples around the world. Perhaps global population would have eventually stabilized without policy and program intervention, but it would have been at a much larger total and a much lower per-capita income level.

Today, a global population of 10 billion may prove manageable but what about one of 15 billion or 20? Such extremes are not implausible, and population remains the inescapable denominator for all discussions of poverty eradication, global climate change, energy requirements, and ecosystem viability.





Views expressed are those of the author. RFF does not take institutional positions on legislative or policy questions.

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Additional Resources: 

Robinson, Warren C. and John A. Ross (eds.). 2006. The Global Family Planning Revolution: three decades of policy and program. Washington: The World Bank.

Kantner, John F. and Andrew Kantner. 2006. The Struggle for Concensus on Population and Development. New York: Palgrave–McMillan.

Sinding, Steven. 2000. “The Great Population Debates: How Relevant Are They for the 21st Century.” American Journal of Public Health. 90(12), 1841-1847.