Is the US population in decline? More ponzi demography

Is the US population in decline? More ponzi demography
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With the release of end-of-year and end-of-decade U.S. population estimates, Ponzi demography is again appearing in news headlines, economic reports and investment commentaries around the country.

The basic message that advocates of Ponzi demography want Americans to swallow is: economic growth requires population growth. But like all pyramid schemes, Ponzi demography is a scam. 

Vested interests, including many market economists, investment advisers, business leaders and even political opportunists are again ringing alarm bells over reported declining U.S. population growth. 

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Recent headlines include, “America’s population growth slows to a crawl”, “U.S. population growth smallest in at least 120 years” and “U.S. on pace for slowest growth since Spanish Flu and economic impact is already evident.” Others stress that the 2020’s projection for the U.S. population will likely close out the slowest decade of population growth in the nation’s history. 

High mortality is alarming. Women bearing many more children than desired is alarming. High levels of illegal immigration and trafficking of people are alarming. But slower U.S. population growth is not alarming.

While it is often disguised in economic jargon and accounting spreadsheets coupled with fears of financial decline, Ponzi demography is basically a pyramid scheme that aims to make more money for some by adding more people through population growth (i.e., natural increase and immigration).

The underlying strategy of Ponzi demography is straightforward: privatize profits and socialize costs incurred from increased population growth. 

Population growth is simply the result of births minus deaths plus net migration. To better understand trends in U.S. population growth, it is helpful to briefly consider each of the three demographic components.  

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With respect to attaining low death rates and long life, although far from being in the lead, Italy, Japan and Switzerland have achieved that distinction, America’s average life expectancy at birth has gained more than 10 years since the middle of the 20th century (i.e., from 68 years in 1950 to about 79 years).

However, when deaths rise abruptly, as they have during the coronavirus pandemic, ringing the alarm bells is certainly justified.

With approximately 360,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. — far more than any other country and about 20 percent of the world total —  it is estimated that the coronavirus may have reduced America’s average life expectancy at birth by a year or more.

Regarding births, U.S. fertility is below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman as is the case in every developed country and many developing countries, including China. In 2018, America’s fertility fell to a record low 1.7 births per woman.

The many forces pushing U.S. fertility to below replacement are simply too powerful for governments, the private sector and other institutions to overcome. In short, men with economic, political and societal power are not able to persuade American women to bear more children than desired, which is resulting in below replacement fertility levels.

In addition to attempts to increase low fertility, Ponzi demography also relies on immigration, including unauthorized migration, for additional population growth in order to boost profits. The standard slogan in this campaign is "the country urgently needs increased immigration," even when unemployment is high.

Immigration to the U.S. is the highest in the world. With the country receiving more than 1 million immigrants annually, the total number of immigrants in the country is estimated to have reached 45 million. That figure represents about 14 percent of the total population, nearly triple the share of 5 percent in 1970 and close to the record high of 15 percent in 1890.

Taking into account fertility, mortality and migration, the U.S. population has been growing since its founding. America’s population has increased each decade since the first census in 1790, exceeding 50 million by 1880, 100 million by 1920, 200 million by 1970 and 300 million by 2010.

During the 21st century, America’s population increased by 10 percent in the first decade and is projected to have increased by 8 percent between 2010 and 2020, from 309 million to 333 million.

America’s population is projected to continue growing, reaching more than 400 million by 2060. Some would like to see America’s population become even larger than the projected figure, perhaps even reaching 1 billion, an admittedly impossible outcome for the foreseeable future.  

Ponzi demography advocates avoid addressing the question of how long America’s population should continue to grow. The reason for this is largely because they would like high rates of U.S. population growth to extend well beyond the foreseeable future.  

When confronted with environmental concerns such as climate change, global warming, environmental contamination, pollution or shortages of water and other vital natural resources, promoters of Ponzi demography typically dismiss such concerns as alarmist or argue that such concerns are best addressed by a growing population. 

Ponzi demography's advocacy for higher population growth for America is ultimately unsustainable. Higher population growth will hamper efforts to improve the quality of life for today's Americans as well as for future generations. 

In brief, slower U.S. population growth is not alarming. Moving gradually towards population stabilization, as recommended more than 50 years ago by the U.S. Commission on Population and the American Future, is not a panacea for America’s problems. However, it will make it far easier to address problems such as climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, homelessness, extreme socio-economic inequalities and human rights abuses. 

Joseph Chamie is an independent consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including international migration, fertility, mortality, growth, gender and aging.