Why Population Projections Are Always Too High

Author: 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 year 2000.

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 decline.

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:

16. Abortion 17. Government propaganda 18. Totalitarian methods 19. Media propaganda 20. Private sector and government-provided birth control materials 21. Taxes 22. Discouragement of marriage 23. Care in old age 24. Peer group pressure 25. Sterilization

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 values.

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 improve.

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 5% annually.

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 on fertility.

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 rate substantially.

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 other reasons.

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)