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Three Hundred Million and Counting


September 8, 2006 Volume 8, Number 35 

Dear Colleague:

Americans should celebrate their coming 300 millionth fellow resident. But many wrong-headed commentators will be complaining.

Steven W. Mosher President

Three Hundred Million and Counting

Sometime next month, the U.S. Census Bureau will announce that the population of the United States has reached 300 million. The USA has the world’s third-largest population, trailing far behind China (1.3 billion) and India (1.1 billion). Accompanying the 300 million milestone will be numerous complaints about the supposed overpopulation and overcrowding of America, yet the United States, on a list of the world’s 193 nations arranged by population density, ranks only 143 and has one of the world’s richest sets of natural resources to boot. Despite suburban sprawl and rapid population growth in some metropolitan regions, the United States as a whole is far from overpopulated.

The world’s population density is 43 people per square kilometer. That includes the vast areas of land- the Sahara desert, the Australian interior, Greenland- where almost no one lives. The USA’s population density is 30.

One of the paramount complaints made about America’s population expansion will be environmental: Population growth is making our environment unsustainable. Yet many nations with environmental records equal to or superior to our own, in most environmentalists’ eyes, have far greater population densities: Austria, 97; France, 110; Denmark, 126; Switzerland, 181; Italy, 192; Germany, 230; Britain, 243; Belgium, 339; the Netherlands, 395. These countries, with their powerful green lobbies, typically have environmental laws more stringent than our own. And Russia, with a tiny population density of 8, has a very poor environmental record.

Some prosperous countries, with healthy populations, have population densities that make the Netherlands’ look small, though admittedly these countries typically must import most of their natural resources’unlike the United States. Singapore has a density of 6,400, Hong Kong almost as high, and Taiwan, a mere 636. South Korea’s is 491. Monaco’s is 16,620.

Yet, in a typical piece fond of the word ‘alarm,’ the Boston Globe said August 31, ‘The United States, now at nearly 300 million people, is the only industrialized country that has experienced strong population growth in the last decade, creating concerns that the boom and Americans’ huge appetites for food, water, and land will sharply erode the nation’s natural resources in coming years, according to a report released yesterday. . . . While some researchers focus on alarming fertility rates in poor countries, which grew by 16.3% from 1995 to 2005, the U.S. population grew by 10.6% in that period, or 29 million people, the report noted. Europe during that time grew by 504,000 people, or less than 1%. The U.S. population boom was attributed to high birth rates, immigration, and increased longevity.’

What the Globe failed to note is that other industrialized nations are committing suicide. With birthrates averaging around 1.5 children per woman, well below the replacement rate of 2.1, Western European nations are on their way out. Despite high rates of immigration and a relatively healthy birthrate of 2.0, the United States faces bankruptcy of her Social Security and Medicare plans due to the baby boomers’ failure to have proportionally enough children. European countries, both Western and Eastern, and Japan face the same problem in spades.

‘What about the huge growth I’ve seen in my area” you may be thinking. The continued land development and increased traffic congestion in most metropolitan areas from Washington, D.C. to Atlanta to Los Angeles seems proof enough to many that the United States’ population growth is out of control. Yet people forget that small towns and rural areas across America continue to wither as more and more people move to major cities and their suburbs. An astonishing 80% of Americans now live in metropolitan areas. For all of human history until the 20th Century, the great majority of people lived in small cities, towns, and rural areas. Most Americans live within 50 miles of a coast. What we have is a failure to manage and distribute land development properly.

In addition, much of suburban sprawl isn’t driven by population growth at all. The average home size of Americans is at a record high. More and more Americans can afford, and buy, second homes. And the divorce revolution has created millions of double households where just 35 years ago there would have been one, as spouses split up and live separately. An ever-growing proportion of Americans live alone, each one taking his own apartment, condominium, or house.

America’s population grows by about 0.9% a year. Without a sufficient number of young people to work, America’s aging problem’projected to worsen for decades to come’will make our country economically unviable. Over the next month, we will explain that, whatever the problems inherent in our high immigration levels and improper development patterns, America’s overall population growth is a boon, not a concern.

Joseph A. D’Agostino is Vice President for Communications at the Population Research Institute.

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