Chapter 8: Population and Public Policy
We have reviewed population trends in the United States and examined their implications. Now we are ready to talk about the meaning of these trends for policy.
Four things stand out: First, the effects of our past r rapid growth are going to be with us for a long time.
Second, we have to make a choice about our future growth. Third, the choice involves nothing less than the quality of American life. And, fourth, slower population growth provides opportunities to improve the quality of life, but special efforts are required if the opportunities are to be well used.
A Legacy of Growth
Regardless of what happens to the birthrate from now on, our past growth commits us to substantial additional growth in the future. At a minimum, we will probably add 50 million more Americans by the end of the century, and the figure could easily be much higher than that.
We will be living for a long time with the consequences of the baby boom. Not long ago, that surge of births caused double sessions, school in trailers, and a teacher shortage. Now it is crowding the colleges and swelling the number of people looking for jobs. As these young people grow older, they will enter the ranks of producers as well as consumers, and they will eventually reenter dependency—the dependency of the aged.
We are going to have to plan for this. Swelling numbers of job applicants put an extra burden on full employment policy, if only because failure in this
respect now affects so many more people than it did once. This will continue to be true for many years. People think the “baby boom” ended in the 1950’s. Not so. That was only when it reached its peak. The last year when births exceed four million was 1964, only eight years ago.1 In fact, today’s eight-year-olds are just as numerous as 18-year-olds. So it is not too late to try to do better by the youngest of the baby-boom babies than we did by the oldest.
The baby boom is not over. The babies have merely grown older. It has become a boom in the teens and twenties. In a few decades, it will be turning into a retirement boom. During the second decade of the next century, 30 million people will turn 65, compared with 15 million who had their 65th birthday in the past 10 years.2 Will the poverty of the aged be with us then? Census Bureau reports disclose that 25 percent of today’s aged are in poverty, compared with eight percent of people in the young working ages of 22 to 45.3 Thirty years from now, will we do better by the swelling numbers of aged than we do by those we have now? Will we develop alternatives to treating the elderly as castoffs? Not if we don’t try. Not if we don’t plan for it.
We may be through with the past, but the past is not done with us. Our demographic history shapes the future, even though it does not determine it. It sets forth needs as well as opportunities. It challenges us to get ready. While we cannot predict the future, much of it is foreseeable. For this much, at least, we should be prepared.
The Choice About Future Growth
We have to make a choice about our future growth. As a Commission, we have formed a definite judgment about the choice the nation should make. We have examined the effects that future growth alternatives are likely to have on our economy, society, government, resources, and environment, and we have found no convincing argument for continued national population growth. On the contrary, the plusses seem to be on the side of slowing growth and eventually stopping it altogether. Indeed, there might be no reason to fear a decline in population once we are past the period of growth that is in store.
Neither the health of our economy nor the welfare of individual businesses depend on continued population growth. In fact, the average person will be markedly better off in terms of traditional economic values if population growth slows down than if it resumes the pace of growth experienced in the recent past.
With regard to both resources and the environment, the evidence we have assembled shows that slower growth would conserve energy and mineral resources and would be a significant aid in averting problems in the areas of water supply, agricultural land supply, outdoor recreation resources, and environmental pollution.
Slower population growth can contribute to the nation’s ability to solve its problems in these areas by providing an opportunity to devote resources to the quality of life rather than its quantity, and by “buying time”—that is, slowing the pace at which problems accumulate so as to provide opportunity for the development of orderly and democratic solutions.
For government, slower population growth offers potential benefits in the form of reduced pressures on educational and other services; and, for the people, it enhances the potential for improved levels of service in these areas. We find no threat to national security from slower growth. While population growth is not by any means the sole cause of governmental problems, it magnifies them and makes their solution more difficult. Slower growth would lessen the increasing rate of strain on our federal system. To that extent, it would enhance the likelihood of achieving true justice and more ample well-being for all citizens even as it would preserve more individual freedom.
Each one of the impacts of population growth—on the economy, resources, the environment, government, or society at large—indicates the desirability, in the short run, for a slower rate of growth. And, when we consider these together, contemplate the ever-increasing problems involved in the long run, and recognize the long lead time required to arrest growth, we must conclude that continued population growth—beyond that to which we are already committed by the legacy of the baby boom—is definitely not in the interest of promoting the quality of life in the nation.
The Quality of American Life
We are concerned with population trends only as they impede or enhance the realization of those values and goals cherished in, by, and for American society.
What values? Whose goals? As a Commission, we do not set ourselves up as an arbiter of those fundamental questions. Over the decades ahead, the American people themselves will provide the answers, but we have had to judge proposals for action on population-related issues against their contribution to some version of the good life for this society and, for that matter, the world. What we have sought are measures that promise to move demographic trends in the right direction and, at the same time, have favorable direct effects on the quality of life.
We know that problems of quality exist from the variety of indicators that fall short of what is desirable and possible. There are inequalities in the opportunities for life itself evidenced by the high frequency of premature death and the lower life expectancy of the poor. There is a whole range of preventable illness such as the currently high and rising rate of venereal disease. There are a number of congenital deficiencies attributable to inadequate prenatal care and obstetrical services and, in some cases, to genetic origin. Not all such handicaps are preventable, but they occur at rates higher than if childbearing were confined to ages associated with low incidence and if genetic counseling were more widely available.
Innate human potential often has not been fully developed because of the inadequate quality of various educational, social, and environmental factors. Particularly with regard to our ethnic minorities and the female half of the population, there are large numbers of people occupying social roles that do not capitalize on their latent abilities and interest, or elicit a dedicated effort and commitment. There is hunger and malnutrition, particularly damaging to infants and young children, that should not be tolerated in the richest nation the world has ever known. Sensitive observers perceive in our population a certain frustration and alienation that appears to go beyond what is endemic in the human condition; the sources of these feelings should be explored and better understood.
And we can also identify and measure the limiting factors, the inequalities of opportunity, and the environmental hazards that give rise to such limitations in the quality of life—for example, inadequate distribution of and access to health, education, and welfare services; cultural and social constraints on human performance and development associated with race, ethnic origin, sex, and age; barriers to full economic and cultural participation; unequal access to environmental quality; and unequal exposure to environmental hazard.
There are many other problems of quality in American life. Thus, alongside the challenges of population growth and distribution is the challenge of population quality. The goal of all population policy must be to make better the life that is actually lived.
Opportunity and Choice
While slower population growth provides opportunities, it does not guarantee that they will be well used. It simply opens up a range of choices we would not have otherwise. Much depends on how wisely the choices are made and how well the opportunities are used. For example, slower population growth would enable us to provide a far better education for children at no increase in total costs. We want the opportunity presented by slower growth to be used this way, but we cannot guarantee that it will be. The wise use of opportunities such as this depends on public and private decisions yet to be made.
Slowing population growth can “buy time” for the solution of many problems; but, without the determined, long-range application of technical and political skills, the opportunity will be lost. For example, our economic and political systems reward the exploitation of virgin resources and impose no costs on polluters. The technology exists for solving many of these problems. But proper application of this technology will require the recognition of public interests, the social inventiveness to discover institutional arrangements for channeling private interests without undue government regulation, and the political courage and skill needed to institute the necessary changes.
Slower population growth offers time in which to accomplish these things. But if all we do with breathing time is breathe, the value of the enterprise is lost.
Population change does not take place in a vacuum. Its consequences are produced through its joint action with technology, wealth, and the institutional structures of society. Hence, a study of the American future, insofar as it is influenced by population change, cannot ignore, indeed it must comment upon, the features of the society that make population growth troublesome or not.
Hence, while we are encouraged by the improvement in average income that will be yielded by slower population growth, we are concerned with the persistence of vast differences in the distribution of income, which has remained fixed now for a quarter of a century.
While we are encouraged by the relief that slower population growth offers in terms of pressure on resources and the environment, we are aware of the inadequacy of the nation’s general approach to these problems.
We rely largely on private market forces for conducting the daily business of production and consumption. These work well in general and over the short run to reduce costs, husband resources, increase productivity, and provide a higher material standard of living for the individual. But the market mechanism has been ineffective in allocating the social and environmental costs of production and consumption, primarily because public policies and programs have not provided the proper signals nor required that such costs be borne by production and consumption activities. Nor has the market mechanism been able to provide socially acceptable incomes for people who, by virtue of age, incapacity, or injustice, are poorly equipped to participate the market system for producing and distributing income.
Our economy’s use of the earth’s finite resources, ad the accompanying pollution or deterioration of the quality of water, air, and natural beauty, has neglected some of the fundamental requirements for acceptable survival. Often the time horizon for both public and private decisions affecting the economy has been too short. It seems clear that market forces alone cannot be relied upon to achieve our social and environmental goals, for reasons that make exchange, though the main organizing principle, inadequate without appropriate institutional and legal underpinnings.4
In short, even if we achieve the stabilization of population, our economic, environmental, governmental, and social problems will still be with us unless by will and intelligence we develop policies to deal with the other sources of these problems. The fact that such policies have shown little conspicuous success in the past gives rise to the skepticism we have expressed above in our discussion of the relations between government and population growth.
The problem is not so much the impact of population on government as the adequacy of government to respond to the challenge of population and the host of issues that surround it. Long-term planning is necessary to deal with environmental and resource problems, but there are only beginning signs that government is motivated or organized to undertake it. A major commitment is required to bring minorities into the mainstream of American life, but the effort so far is inadequate. It is clear that the “real city” that comprises the metropolis requires a real government to manage its affairs; but the nation is still trying to manage the affairs of complex, interconnected, metropolitan communities with fragmented institutional structures inherited from the 18th century.
Population, then, is clearly not the whole problem. But it is clearly part of the problem, and it is the part given us as the special responsibility of this Commission. How policy in this area should be shaped depends on how we define the objectives of policy in respect to population.
Ideally, we wish to develop recommendations worthwhile in themselves, which at the same time, speak to population issues. These recommendations are consistent with American ethical values in that they aim to enhance individual freedom while simultaneously promoting the common good. It is important to reiterate that our policy recommendations embody goals either intrinsically desirable or worthwhile for reasons other than demographic objectives.
Moreover, some of the policies we recommend are irreversible in a democratic society, in the sense that freedoms once introduced cannot be rescinded lightly. This irreversibility characterizes several of the important policies recommended by this Commission. We are not really certain of the demographic impact of some of the changes implied by our recommendations. One or two could conceivably increase the birthrate by indirectly subsidizing the bearing of children. The rest may depress the birthrate below the level of replacement. We are not concerned with this latter contingency because, if sometime in the future the nation wishes to increase its population growth, there are many possible ways to try this; a nation’s growth should not depend on the ignorance and misfortune of its citizenry. In any event, it is naive to expect that we can fine-tune such trends.
In the broadest sense, the goals of the population policies we recommend aim at creating social conditions wherein the desired values of individuals, families, and communities can be realized; equalizing social and economic opportunities for women and members of disadvantaged minorities; and enhancing the potential for improving the quality of life.
At the educational level, we wish to increase public awareness and understanding of the implications of population change and simultaneously further our knowledge of the causes and consequences of population change.
In regard to childbearing and child-rearing, the goals of our recommendations are to: (1) maximize information and knowledge about human reproduction and its implications for the family; (2) improve the quality of the setting in which children are raised; (3) neutralize insofar as it is practicable and consistent with other values those legal, social, and institutional pressures that historically have been mainly pronatalist in character; and (4) enable individuals to avoid unwanted childbearing, thereby enhancing their ability to realize their preferences. These particular policies are aimed at facilitating the social, economic, and legal conditions within our society which increase ethical responsibility and the opportunity for unbiased choice in human reproduction and child-rearing. At the same time, by enhancing the individual’s opportunity to make a real choice between having few children and having many, between parenthood and childlessness, and between marriage and the single state, these policies together will undoubtedly slow our rate of population growth and accelerate the advent of population stabilization.
In connection with the geographic distribution of population, our objectives are to ease and guide the process of population movement, to facilitate planning for the accommodation of movements, and to increase the freedom of choice in residential locations.
To these ends, therefore, we offer our recommendations in the belief that the American people, collectively and individually, should confront the issues of population growth and reach deliberate informed decisions about the family’s and society’s size as they affect the achievement of personal and national values.