Relationship Between Population Decline and Recession

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. 



4 Responses to Relationship Between Population Decline and Recession

  1. I think while population shifts location, overall it grows during/due to recessions. Some change can be good, some can be bad! Some can be both at the same time… We already know the current one has been bad, but let’s see if it turns out good too!

    • Pete Murphy says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Dave. No doubt, things will eventually improve, although it’s been a year since I wrote this post and matters have only gotten much worse. The problem is that with the recessions of the past few decades, each recovery takes us back to a point not as good as before. Overall, wages decline, median net worth declines, workers lose benefits and unemployment never fully recovers. The slow rise in population density is driving this slow economic decline and we can’t just hope or wish it away.

  2. Christy Quinn says:

    Hi, I am in Vancouver Canada ,on vacation, I live in London UK. There is no space left in London .Up here there is plenty of room to move. The recession has had less impact than any other place in N.America,still people are concerned about the damage being done to our ecosystem and environment.There is talk of a curb on immigration etc.BC Professor Bill Rees in Vancouver quoted by Mark Hasuik ,05 01 2009 The Vancouver Courier, said we have to face the fact that we have to shrink the economy . This is better done by a controlled shrinkage rather than a full blown collapse of the global economy. The Irish potato blight was a sad tragedy caused by an indifferent government not a shortage of food, more foodstuffs were sent out of Ireland to pay rents to absent landlords in England,at that time, so we had and have a very underpopulated country next to a very overpopulated one.Ireland 5M UK 62M. I suggest that we have to consider if this recession is ‘good’ in the long run.If we need to shrink our use of resources and population,this is the time to do it. Many states in Europe are in decline and are not replacing their population, Italy is one.Christy Quinn.

    • Pete Murphy says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Christy, and providing that UK perspective. I wouldn’t characterize Ireland as underpopulated. True, their population density is about one fifth of the U.K., but they are almost twice as densely populated as the U.S. and fifteen times more densely populated than Canada. But I understand your point. Regarding your comment about states in Europe being “in decline,” I’m sure you’re referring to their population and not their standard of living. Unfortunately, many European nations are using immigration from the Middle East and Africa to prop up their populations.

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