Courtesy Reuters

Population Pressure and Political Indecision

DEMOGRAPHERS and economists, academic cousins in the lineage from Malthus, carry forward the somber tradition in the literature dealing with underdeveloped countries. In current expositions, the rapid increase in the population of many poorer nations is a crucial factor preventing "takeoff," keeping them on the ground, so to speak, and from the stage of sustained economic advance. The reason for special concern is that the rate of population growth is unprecedented. It is not, as many scholars see it, the same old problem; it is a problem unique in history. In the underdeveloped countries, rates of population growth exceeding 3 percent annually are becoming increasingly common. So high a figure was rarely recorded before the 1950s.

The drop in the death rate is the core of the problem. Here again, we confront developments that are without parallel in demographic history. In Western Europe, the decline in death rates was fairly gradual at first, reflecting the enlargement of food supplies and other concomitants of economic advance. By the time medical science made possible the sharpest reductions in mortality, birth rates in Western Europe had also begun to decline, and the process of economic growth was well under way.

Since the end of World War II, the relationship between falling death rates and the economic capability to support larger populations has broken down. The poorest countries can undertake public health measures that bring down death rates precipitately, while birth rates stay as high as ever, in some cases go even higher. Algeria, British Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Jamaica, Laos, Malaya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Syria, Taiwan, Turkey, Trinidad and Venezuela are growing at rates that if continued will double their populations in 20 or 25 years.

This aspect of the problem has a certain novelty to the American who associates baby booms with business prosperity. His outlook has been conditioned by the economic analysis which predicates full employment on the existence of investment opportunities for all the funds that people insist on saving.

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