For decades “zero population growth” was a goal of the far left. Yet three years into the Trump administration, somehow, here we are.
You may have missed the news over the holiday break, but the Census Bureau reported on December 30 that “the U.S. population is at 328.2 million, up 0.48% since July 2018.” Round down to the nearest full percentage point, and 0.48% is zero.
The census reports further: “In 2019, natural increase dropped to 957,000, marking the first time in at least four decades that it slipped below a million, continuing the trend toward fewer births and more deaths.”
If you are expecting immigration to compensate for Americans having fewer babies, forget about it. It’s not happening, at least under the Trump-Stephen Miller closed-door immigration policy. The Census reports: “Net international migration added 595,000 to the U.S. population between 2018 and 2019, the lowest level this decade.”
Cue the jokes about President Trump winning a re-election endorsement from the Sierra Club or from that notable environmentalist politician Al Gore. Perhaps Mr. Trump will tweet out an endorsement of Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” or Bill McKibben’s 1998 book “Maybe One,” which, as one review put it, “sensibly suggests that voluntarily confining family size to one child will reduce that family's demands on the environment.”
Those who tend to see things through a partisan lens will observe that the population growth picture is more nuanced. The overall low growth disguises a range that does include some large families. If urban liberals are failing to reproduce while evangelicals are having minivans full of children, the argument goes, it will help the Republican Party long term. Likewise, the claim is that Mexican immigrants become Democratic voters, so fewer of them is somehow good for the Republicans.
Count me as a skeptic of that analysis. Actually, population growth is an ingredient in economic growth. Businesses need customers. The retirees on Social Security and Medicare need current workers to pay taxes to support the programs. All those empty former manufacturing cities and towns need people to fill them up to prevent them from feeling abandoned.
Having children is a personal choice. Most persons, quite sensibly, make those choices primarily for personal reasons, not reasons related to advancing national economic interests. Policymakers concerned about the national and economic consequences of near-zero population growth, though, might want to consider policies that are family-friendly, or at least neutral, instead of policies that are hostile to large families.
Likewise, on immigration, it’s one thing to build a wall to keep illegal immigrants out, a policy on which Mr. Trump campaigned. Yet in 2015, Mr. Trump said, “this will be a wall with a big, very beautiful door because we want the legals to come back into the country.”
What’s wrong with America that we can’t process immigration applications fast enough, or attract enough suitable applicants, to reach a level of immigrants suitable for a nation of our size?
There’s a third way to increase the overall population, besides birthing even more babies and welcoming even more legal immigrants. That is to keep the existing population alive longer. We haven’t been doing well at that, either, as the rise in “deaths of despair” from addiction and suicide attests.
“The recent 3-year downturn in US life expectancy is the longest sustained decline in a century,” Ali Bokhari and Joshua Sharfstein reported in a recent article. “One might imagine that these demoralizing statistics would be a key focus for candidates seeking the presidency. This is not the case.”
If politicians really don’t care that the number of Americans is barely growing, some might start to suspect it says something about their view of voters, or of Americans overall.
A 1971 New York Times feature about the zero population growth movement was headlined “To Them, Two Children Are Fine, but Three Crowd the World.” It quoted one activist talking about the difficulty: “trying to change some people’s thinking is like saying motherhood and apple pie are not American.”
It used to be that opposing an increase in the number of Americans was indeed seen as un-American. Now, approaching 50 years later, it seems to have been accepted, without much opposition or recognition, as a bipartisan consensus.
The situation is an opportunity for a politician or an activist group seeking to restore the basic American idea that having more Americans — positive population growth — is good for the country.