Courtesy Reuters

Population Growth and Economic Development: The Case of Mexico

Twenty years ago, there were two polarized positions with respect to the implications of population trends: one pessimistic and the other optimistic. The pessimists asserted that rapid population growth constituted a trap for the poorer countries: their best efforts to develop could serve only to maintain an ever larger population under unimproved or even deteriorating conditions. Those holding the optimistic counterposition denied any ominous implications of population growth, asserting that poverty was caused by remediable institutional defects, whether these be a highly unequal division of property, the capitalist system, or the unwarranted interference of the government in a free market. The pessimists offered the classical Malthusian argument that the supply of basic requirements such as food could not expand as rapidly as the population tended to grow; unless the birth rate was reduced immediately, efforts to achieve social and economic development were bound to be ineffectual. The optimists replied by contending that the world was technically capable of providing a much larger population with a much improved diet, and that the concern for excessive population growth was misdirected.

In a book we wrote then,1 Edgar M. Hoover and I accepted neither a priori position: we were not prepared to assume either that population growth, if continued, was bound to lead to an early disaster, nor that population growth made little difference to development. Our strategy was to examine as objectively as we could the prospect for economic development in specific countries in an effort to ascertain how much difference it would make if the future population within the country were to develop according to one or the other of two strongly contrasting possible paths. Specifically, we calculated the future of the population if the rate at which women bear children (up until then essentially unchanging in most less-developed countries) were on the one hand to continue for another generation or more without any change, or, alternatively, were to be reduced by 50 percent in a period of 25 years. The purpose of our

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