The Most Politically Incorrect Topic

By B. Meredith Burke
Volume 2, Number 4 (Summer 1992)
Issue theme: "Twenty years later: a lost opportunity"

Imagine if 25 years ago someone had identified lung cancer as a major problem, had pinpointed smoking as a major contributing factor, had even quantified its effects - and then had assumed that people's smoking behavior was a timeless 'given.' What would you call the failure to ask two questions is smoking a changeable behavior - and if yes, how do we get people to quit? In non-academic terms I would call it a cop-out.

Politicians, planners and concerned citizens in my state of California keep debating how to solve such worsening problems as urban sprawl, environ-mental degradation (including the paving over of prime agricultural land), traffic congestion and bulging school enrollments. They correctly identify the growth of population from 10.6 million in 1950 to 20 million in 1970 to 30 million today as the major underlying factor. But the debate never rises above 'managing growth' to the more global questions is population growth an eternal 'given' and, if not, what is needed to stop it?

'There is no 'tolerable' growth

rate. Either all growth stops,

or the size expands until

our natural resources run out.'

California Gov. Pete Wilson has said that 'we will have to minimize the magnetic effect of the generosity of this state.' But when asked if our state can support not only 30 million but 40 million or 50 million people, he could only point out that freedom of residence is constitutionally guaranteed. In other words, states do not control their population size. The federal government does. Immigration and refugee policies are federal responsibilities.

But both the executive and the legislative branches are fashioning policy with barely a nod to the resultant American demographic future. In 1965, when Congress overhauled the Northern European-biased country-of-origins policy that had ruled immigration quotas since 1921, it was unclear what the effects would be. No one asked then by how much will immigration increase? Where will the new pool of immigrants settle? Should we set a date to evaluate the effects of the new immigration and survey citizen and local-area response?

No 'Tolerable' Growth

When Congress expanded the immigration quota from 500,000 to 700,000 in November 1990, the effects on America's future again went unexamined. Alan Simpson, who led the Senate's action, represents Wyoming, the state that ranks 51st in population among the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. His state is not among the six whose home population will be appreciably affected. California, New York and Florida absorb more than 50 percent of immigrants; Texas, New Jersey and Illinois absorb an additional 20 percent.

A demographic rule of thumb is that the doubling time of a population can be calculated by dividing 70 by the annual percentage growth rate. Between 1950 and 1990 we grew from 150 million to 250 million people. Today a 1 percent growth rate adds 2.5 million people annually; in 70 years it may well add 5 million people - every year and primarily in the same few locations. There is no 'tolerable' growth rate. Either all growth stops, or the size expands until our natural resources run out.

Last winter demographers Dennis Ahlburg and James Vaupel published U.S. population projections that differed sharply from those of the Census Bureau. Based on what I consider much more realis-tic assumptions about future mortality, fertility and immigration, their three most reasonable estimates for the year 2080 are 487 million, 539 million and 611 million Americans. Projections should be viewed as blueprints offering a still-modifiable future. On the heels of Earth Day 1970, after Congress and President Nixon received the report of their special Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, both activists and legislators failed to enlist the public in debating the alternative scenarios presented. Californians, city dwellers and farmers alike, missed the chance to tell policymakers that they did not want a state congested with 10 million more people within 20 years. Floridians lost the chance to keep remnants of the Everglades free from further encroachment and drainage.

Our physical habitat is being threatened by an immigrant flow that represents only 1 percent of Third World annual population growth. Curtailing immigration while voting generous family planning and nonmilitary aid packages can far better benefit citizens of the developing countries than the status quo. Americans must trade a national vision of a beckoning Statue of Liberty and a vision of wide-open spaces for a more realistic one of a world of limits and constraints.

Our demographic future is in our hands. Several routes could lead to a stationary population, inclu-ding one-child families and moderate, continuous immigration; or two-child families and no immi-gration. If these models seem unappealing, we can go on with unchanging policies and end up with 550 million Americans, primarily in 20 urban areas in seven or eight states, in 2070 - and a billion Americans 70 years after that.

National Consensus

In short, demographic reality will not permit us to evade hard choices. We need a national consensus that those cities and states most affected by growth should have a decisive vote in shaping immigration policy. This may require a 27th constitutional amendment that will allocate immigration-setting power to the electorates. A lot of effort? Yes - but less than that required to support and govern a population of 1 billion Americans. ?

About the author

Ms. Burke is a demographer and economist who has consulted for the World Bank. She has

written extensively on women's issues, reproductive health, and medical ethics.