Progress on menace of growth

Just in time for Earth Day, there is one piece of good—very good—news in this recession: The population of the United States is dropping.

The National Center for Health Statistics has released new numbers showing that the birthrate is not high enough to outpace the death rate. In the most recent complete figures, the birthrate fell 2 percent from 2007 to 2008. Normally, it grows about a percent a year.

The economy is one factor in this decline, with couples delaying children until the recession is over. But that may not be the whole story, because the teen birthrate—which scholars say is less tied to economic news—is also falling. (One Washington Post reader posted a comment suggesting that the teen population has “stopped looking at people like Sanford and Ensign as role models.”)

There are very few of our long term problems that would not benefit from negative population growth—energy, health care, education, water, climate change, food supply. And these are benefits that await not just the United States but nations around the world struggling with their own growth rates.

There are some troubling policy issues related to the population rate. Democrats in Congress included funding for abstinence programs for teens in their health-care changes, though such programs have a terrible record of reducing the teen birthrate. This carryover from the Bush years should end, because it fosters higher birthrates. The money should be diverted to programs with records of effectiveness.

Then there are policymakers and the press, which tend to treat increasing population as a positive economic indicator. For instance, the Detroit Free Press, in a story headlined “Michigan hit by decline in births, economy blamed,” was filled with subtle hints that a slower birthrate was hurting the state.

“Driving closer to home the connection between birth rates and the economy are the conversations local doctors are having with their patients,” read one sentence that led to anecdotal material.

“We’re not able to hold onto younger people, and those who are here are having lower birth rates,” was a quote from one demographer.

Or consider that headline: Why blame instead of credit?

Finally, there are anti-growth groups like Californians for Population Stabilization and Negative Population Growth that have drifted from lobbying on policies that affect birthrate and fertility into anti-immigrant activism. This encourages the notion that growth policies stop at borders, that if we ship enough people out of the United States, the problem is solved. This xenophobic approach is more a hindrance than an aid to the problem of overpopulation.

Some projections see the United States with a population of 400 million to 500 million by mid-century, which would strain the nation’s resources and ability to cope and could lead to catastrophic consequences. The out-of-control birthrate this nation has usually experienced is not progress. It is a lack of progress, and the sooner we have state and national policies that encourage negative population growth in order to keep this current trend going, the sooner the nation can cool its overheated engines and reap the benefits to all aspects of the nation’s well being.