I was just reading an article about the recently reported decline in the population of major cities in the “rust belt” – cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. It’s no secret that these cities are losing population and the reason is no secret either. The loss of manufacturing jobs is driving people to seek employment elsewhere in the U.S., primarily throughout the South. This is especially true of young people who, upon graduation, find work wherever they can.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of population shift. In the ’30s it was people fleeing the dust bowl, looking for work in California. In the 1800s, people fled the potato famine in Ireland. I’m sure each of you can identify other such situations. In every case, a population decline has been precipitated by some tragic event.
But it suddenly dawned on me; people have come to accept that a declining population is a bad thing because, in the past, it has always been caused by something bad. The cause and effect have become synonymous. This is almost surely part of the reason that many people tend to recoil in horror if you suggest that the population needs to decline. It immediately conjures up images of conditions that have driven population declines in the past. In their minds, the cause and effect relationship has been reversed.
An economic recession, like we are experiencing in the “rust belt,” can certainly drive a population shift away from that area. But there is no inverse relationship. A population decline cannot cause an economic recession, at least not in per capita terms. Certainly, if the population of a country declines by 50%, then its GDP will decline too, meeting the technical definition of an economic recession. But, for the remaining population, the per capita GDP will be just as high, if not higher. They will not be worse off economically. In fact, if such a country were over-populated to begin with, the remaining population will actually experience a dramatic improvement in their quality of life.
This is something we all need to be aware of when we broach the subject of population management with people – the fact that they have been conditioned to think of it in negative terms because of the muddling of cause and effect in situations that they’ve seen before.