WHY POPULATION PROJECTIONS ARE ALWAYS TOO HIGH
Robert L. Sassone
25 factors all cause fertility to decline
How does it feel to live in a world with 10 billion people? You say there
are less than 6 billion? You are correct, but 25 or more years ago we were
promised that there would be more than 10 billion either now or about the
Why do massive population projection errors occur? The method the United
Nations uses for projections does not take into account any of about 25
major leading indicators that are known to both predict and influence
future fertility. For short-term projections, the UN system works, but for
longer-term projections, the only way the UN system can be accurate is if
the 25 major leading indicators are about equally divided so that their
effects on future fertility rates cancel. This has never happened, since
for decades all 25 leading indicators have been causing fertility to
As fertility declines, fewer people are born, reducing population. Could
governments cause fertility to increase in those countries where it has
been too low for too long? Government efforts have all failed so far.
Most of the leading indicators are not subject to substantial change by
governments. Non-totalitarian government efforts to substantially increase
fertility have been futile.
Today, and for many years in the past, all of the 25 major leading
indicators have been forcing fertility to decline. The 25 may be divided
into two types of leading indicators, the 15 which massively reduce
fertility rates but cannot be substantially changed, and the 10 which can
be changed but which can only slightly change fertility rates.
The 15 leading indicators which can be changed little in the direction of
increased fertility by democratic government intervention and which
operate independently to reduce fertility are:
1. Migration from rural to urban areas
2. Small homes
3. Small cars
4. Increasing materialism
5. Rising expectations
6. Likelihood of child death
7. Male education
8. Female education
9. Desire for child to rise economically
10. Income increase
11. Cost/benefit ratio
12. Female job opportunities outside home
13. Greater knowledge
14. Increased life expectancy
15. Decrease of extended families
The ten leading indicators that can be influenced somewhat by government but
apparently not enough to restore fertility rates to replacement level include:
17. Government propaganda
18. Totalitarian methods
19. Media propaganda
20. Private sector and government-provided birth control materials
22. Discouragement of marriage
23. Care in old age
24. Peer group pressure
Let us first examine the 15 important leading indicators.
1. Migration from rural areas to urban areas has been associated with a
drop in the fertility rate of more than one child per woman. Cities are
attracting many millions of immigrants each year. This is likely to
continue. The UN lists about 40 major measures of quality of life, and all
are better in more densely populated areas. We can assume that migration
from rural areas to urban areas will continue.
2. Cities are already built and full of very small homes, many with only
one small bedroom. Their inhabitants feel so crowded that they have
fertility rates much below average. It would be so expensive to increase
the size of city dwellings that most dwellings of the future will be those
now in existence.
3. Cars nearly all are small. Car size is a practical limitation on family
size. Car size is unlikely to substantially increase because of fuel costs
and because city streets are too narrow for wide cars.
4. Materialism. Two hundred years ago our ancestors had large families in
the cities. What is the modern difference? In its desire for economic
gain, and with the knowledge that having a large family might reduce its
chances for such gain, modern parents reduce family size in hope of
material benefits. The desire for material things outweighs less material
5. Rising economic expectations. Two hundred years ago, few expected
substantial improvement. Today, in most of the world, people know living
conditions are improving and will take steps, such as having fewer
children, that they believe will help their financial situation to
6. Likelihood of child death. It has been estimated that each child who
dies is replaced by, on average, more than 1-1/2 new births. About half
the new births are by parents of the dead child effectively to try to
replace the dead child, while the other half are preventive, births that
would otherwise probably not have occurred except for a fear of possible
future child death.
7. Male education delays the date of marriage and intensifies the effect
of the other leading indicators.
8. Female education delays the date of marriage, is associated with a
desire for fewer children and increases options related to fewer children,
such as employment opportunities outside the home.
9. Desire for child to rise economically. Many families, given hope of
improvement, limit the size of their families to retain enough money to
pay for the greater investment in education and upward mobility of the
children they already have.
10. Income increase has been associated with substantial fertility
decline. Average less- developed countries income is increasing at about
11. Cost/benefit ratio is associated with almost a halving of fertility
rate. In the developing countries' countryside, a child's work brings
income to the family greater than the expense from about age seven up. It
is therefore rational to have more children and thus increase both income
and security. When the family moves to the city, or when conditions change
as they are changing in many areas, each additional child requires
economic sacrifice, so family size declines.
12. Female job opportunities outside the home. Modern jobs require less
strength and more training. A trained woman can do many jobs as well as or
better than a man. Accordingly, job opportunities for women increase in
number and especially in quality as technology progresses. Women employed
outside the home, for a variety of reasons, have substantially fewer
children. At the same time, increased materialism and availability of
improved goods for purchase increases the pressure driving women to seek
employment outside the home.
13. Greater knowledge. Research has improved effectiveness of natural
family planning as well as contraceptive (barrier, chemical and
biological) birth control methods.
14. Increased life expectancy. Previously there were few elderly, most of
whom did not live very long, so the burden of caring for these elderly was
not great. With the massive increases in life expectancy (15 years since
1960), the number of people who are elderly has massively increased,
making it difficult for them to be cared for by relatives or the public.
Forced to rely on themselves, rather than their children who have their
own problems, many are choosing a smaller family to permit them to build
greater capital for a hoped-for relatively long retirement period.
15. Decrease of extended families. Previously, relatives lived close, so
that child care could be shared by close relatives. Modern mobility has
made the nuclear family displace the extended family with consequent
increase of burden of child-raising, which has exerted a downward pressure
Nearly all of the preceding leading indicators are still likely to force
fertility downward with increasing intensity in the future. Other factors
inherent in one or more of the above leading indicators could also be
mentioned as leading indicators themselves, but the author believes the
preceding fairly describe those leading indicators that cannot be
substantially influenced by government.
The author considers the following 10 to probably be the most important of
the secondary leading indicators. The following leading indicators can be
influenced by governments, but are not independent causes of fertility
decline in the way the primary leading indicators are. The following act
primarily to enable people to reduce fertility after the decision to
reduce fertility has been made. Efforts by governments have increased
fertility rates only slightly.
16. Abortion reduces the birth rate, even though there is a tendency for
abortion to replace birth control.
17. Government propaganda has some effect, but the effect seems minimal
unless backed by the threat of force or unless the propaganda praises a
direction the people want to travel for other reasons.
18. Totalitarian methods, such as were used in Romania and China, have
substantial effect for a time, but build up opposing pressures. The
Romanian dictator was overthrown and executed.
19. Media propaganda has a substantial effect in the absence of opposing
forces. Media can cause a falling fertility rate to fall faster. It has
not been shown, however, that media propaganda can increase the fertility
20. Private sector and government-provided birth control materials. There
is great dispute as to whether these are cost-effective, since they seem
to have effect only if the decision to reduce family size is made for
21. Taxes have been used both to discourage and encourage child-bearing.
They appear to be far more effective in discouraging child-bearing than in
encouraging child- bearing.
22. Discouragement of marriage reduces fertility, but encouragement of
marriage has never been shown to be effective.
23. Care in old age. Old-age pensions have reduced the need to have a
surviving son in order to be supported in old age. No related effect
increasing fertility has been shown.
24. Peer group pressure has been very effective, with related factors, in
reducing fertility. No related effect increasing fertility has been shown.
25. Sterilization has reduced fertility substantially, but has been
imposed without consent on millions of the poor.
(Mr. Sassone will represent American Life League at the UN Conference
on Population and Development in Cairo, September 5-13, 1994)