A wide range of theories exist to explain the relationship between population density and economic well-being. The earliest came from Thomas Robert Malthus, who argued that unchecked population growth will outstrip resources. Today, many researchers reject that notion, finding instead that population density is only indirectly tied to poverty; indeed, blaming population growth is a way to avoid dealing with other, systemic causes of poverty. Ester Boserup posited that instead of destroying resources, a more densely populated locale would provide the incentive for innovation. Recently, an updated version of the Malthusian outlook has gained favor: this is an environmental argument, linking unlimited population growth with environmental degradation. Looking at various societies, in America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, it is clear that there is no universal relationship between population density and economic well-being.
Keywords Anti-Natalism; Boserupian Paradigm; Desertification; Economic Externalities; Environmental Malthusianism; Less Developed Countries; Neo-Malthusianism; Population Density; Poverty Threshold; Quality of Life; Social Stratification; Social Structure
In 1938, Gunnar Myrda wrote:
No other factor—not even that of peace or war—is so tremendously fatal for the destinies of democracies as the factor of population. Democracy, not only as a political form, but with all its content of civic ideals and human life, must either solve this problem or perish (Weiss, 2007, p. 328).
Two of the first and most critical thinkers on the connection between population density and the well-being of society were Malthus and Charles Darwin. At the close of the eighteenth century, Malthus wrote his famous thesis, awakening the world to the danger of unchecked population growth. Malthus proposed the idea that as populations grew and became ever more concentrated, resources would be consumed faster than their replacement rate. Thus, there must be a connection between population density and social well-being, with those least able to secure diminishing resources falling lower on the socioeconomic ladder. Darwin countered that natural selection would bring about a new equilibrium, as the unfit were eliminated, re-establishing the balance between population and carrying capacity.
An alternative view of growth, the Boserupian paradigm, posits that population levels determine the pace of technological change, particularly in the field of agriculture, thus escaping the trap that Malthus foresaw (Klasen, Nestmann, & Cigno, 2006). Stephan Klasen, Thorsten Nestmann, and Alessandro Cigno suggest technological advances depend on population density, not just absolute numbers, as density "facilitates communication and exchange, increases the size of markets and the scope for specialization and creates the required demand for innovation, all of which should spur the creation …of new technologies" (2006, p. 612). They find that there is a clear correlation between an increase in both population density and per capita gross domestic product.
In order to understand the relationship between population density, poverty, and social stratification, it is necessary to first consider the social structure of the locale. Stanley Udy identified five major components of social structure. They are "the individual (personality), group, morphological (physical arrangement, ecology), systemic (interrelationships of activities, social roles), and cultural (norms, values, beliefs)" (in Ferriss, 2006, p. 454). Abbott Ferriss used the concept of social structure to explore how a community—in this case, counties in Georgia—provides the framework for individuals to interact with others to satisfy their needs and goals. Within the community is a hierarchy, with status connected to both monetary and occupational levels. Thus, Ferris argues, inequality, with poverty levels as the index, is inherent in the social structure of the community (2006).
One way to understand the effect of population density on an individual's well-being is to use the World Health Organization's (WHO) definition of quality of life (QoL): "QoL represents the individual's perception of his/her position in life in a cultural context and according to the general social value systems, personal goals, expectations and concerns of life" (Cramer, Torgensen & Kringlen, 2004, p. 103). While some factors might be quite esoteric, others are more quantifiable, such as health, status within the family, ability to achieve significant life goals, as well as socioeconomic and sociopolitical status. V. Cramer and colleagues used these factors to examine how many variables affected QoL in Oslo, Norway. One factor that held true, across ages, gender, and income levels, was a negative correlation between population density and a high quality of life.
Many less developed countries (LDCs) lack an effective tracking system to provide a definitive growth rate for demographic studies; thus projections by the US Census Bureau are considered the most reliable information available. For 2004, the natural increase rate for LDCs overall was under 1.4 per year. Sub-Saharan Africa had the highest rate at 2.1 annum, brought down from 2.5 by catastrophic death rates due to AIDS. Places where Peter T. Bauer predicted would have quite high growth rates have moved down to either replacement levels (Iran, Brazil, Tunisia) or sub-replacement fertility (Thailand, Vietnam, China, and parts of India) (Eberstadt, 2005). Of course, some countries, Mexico and Nigeria are examples, have seen skyrocketing population growth as improvements in health and nutrition have decreased mortality rates (Tucker, 2006).
In 1981, Bauer published his groundbreaking book, Equality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion. His goal was to expose what he saw as the "conspicuous and disconcerting hiatus between accepted opinion and evident reality" (Eberstadt, 2005, p. 141). At the time, all of the development "experts" were making the same case: that rapid population growth was extremely dangerous, especially in low-income areas of the world. The population explosion was certain to have a negative impact on "poverty, unemployment, hunger and social strife" (Eberstadt, 2005, p. 141). Paul R. Ehrlich, author of the best-selling The Population Bomb warned that the "battle to feed all humanity is over" and had been lost. Perhaps the most respected academic voice of the time was that of Ansley Coale, a Princeton economist, who helped to create the "Coale-Hoover model," which taught students of development how to calculate how much wealth and productivity would be wasted on additional children rather than invested for growth (Eberstadt, 2005).
Bauer's argument was quite simple in outlook: He suggested that all the models that predicted a correlation between economic collapse and an increasing population density were simply ahistorical. He pointed to the United States and Western Europe, both of which had rapidly increasing populations while they prospered during the early decades of industrialism. Hong Kong and Japan saw a combination of true scarcity of land, combined with a rapidly growing population, resulting in a substantial increase in affluence in the second half of the twentieth century. Bauer also pointed to examples of places such as central Africa with an excess of open land, bountiful resources, and dire poverty. He argued instead:
The predictions of doom through population growth rest on the idea that economic achievement, progress, and welfare all depend primarily on natural resources, supplemented by physical capital This neo-Malthusian notion is then supplemented by the very non-Malthusian idea that people in LDCs have no will of their own and are simply passive victims of external forces: in the absence of Western-dictated pressures, people in the less developed world would procreate heedless of consequences (in Eberstadt, 2005, p. 143).
What separated Bauer from other economists of his day was his skepticism of mathematical models and a respect for people living in LDCs. Inside of rigid models, improved nutrition and education counted as consumption, a form of negative growth, rather than a means to a more prosperous life. The same was true for reduced mortality and better health. Statistical models had no means of accounting for the positive influence that can come from increased trade or new avenues for the exchange of ideas. He also took offense at the notion that parents living outside of the developed world have no understanding of the consequences of childbearing. He felt this treated parents with "unwarranted condescension" (Eberstadt, 2005, p. 145). Karina Constantino-David and Maricris Valte also took issue with organizations ranging from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to the United Nations that blamed population growth on poverty, with "indifference to existing social structures that perpetuate poverty" thereby using population increase as a cover for what is "essentially a structurally determined problem" (1994, p. 413).
A central argument leveled against large families is that they create "economic externalities" that the rest of society must bear. When parents have more than two children, their tax dollars cannot possibly cover the societal cost of raising their children; thus the burden is passed on to other taxpayers. In 1990, economic demographers Ronald Lee and Tim Miller examined the economic externalities of childbearing in the United States and compared them with Bangladesh and Kenya. They found the societal cost in the United States was fairly high, but in the two LDCs, both considered prime examples of "population explosion problems," the costs were close to zero. More recent data has shown some societal cost in both countries but not enough to make the argument for economic externalities valid, according to Nicholas Eberstadt (2005).
Anne Booth (2004) suggests that population density is not what is driving poverty in much of Africa. Like Ellis and Heyer, she sees a situation where both the rich and poor of much of rural Africa:
Have access to land and engage in own-account...
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