The Demographic Transition Revisited:
Lessons for Foreign Aid and U.S. Immigration
Virginia Abernethy, Ph.D.
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
Department of Psychiatry
Nashville, TN 37232
Environmentalists, economists, and ethicists cannot
afford to ignore population growth. In poorer countries, high
fertility rates have created a momentum for growth which will last
through the foreseeable future. As more people try to subsist, their
efforts progressively deplete resources and strain the environment's
capacity to cope with pollution. Problems differ in rich and poor
countries. In any setting, however, a growing population exacerbates
the already-daunting difficulty of conserving the carrying capacity,
preserving (restoring) environmental quality, and offering
opportunity to all citizens (Benedick, 1988; Keyfitz, 1989; Ehrlich
and Ehrlich, 1990; Pimentel and Pimentel, 1990; Atiyah and Press,
Historically, undisturbed traditional societies
survived over long periods of time through balancing their
population size with what the environment could support over the
long term, i.e., without damage to the carrying capacity. Experts
are confounded that exponential population growth could be occurring
today, particularly in the face of international technological
assistance, modernization and urbanization, improved healthcare
which greatly reduced infant mortality, increased literacy for women
as well as men, democratization of governments, and thirty years of
liberal immigration, asylee and refugee policies which favor
nationals of the third world. Proponents of development programs
postulated that positive movement on one or more of these factors
would control the population explosion (Notestein, 1945).
In the words of Garrett Hardin, "In the search for
easy solutions to overpopulation demographers in the 1930s produced
their own deus ex machina, which they called the `demographic
transition.' Inherent ambiguity conferred long life on this verbal
invention. Sometimes the term stands for the merely descriptive
assertion that fertility and prosperity are inversely related.
Unfortunately it is more often taken to mean that excessive
fertility cures itself whenever prosperity is conferred on a
population" (Hardin, 1993, Forward).
This paper addresses flaws in the second of the two
meanings of demographic transition which Hardin identifies. Failures
can be shown for every postulate of casual sequence, i.e., a
condition which supposedly leads to lower fertility.
Between the end of World War II and 1970 fertility
rates rose virtually everywhere in the third world. The demographic
transition model bears a share of responsibility for this
overpopulation debacle because the policies it spawned raised
worldwide expectations. The greatest damage was done by aid and the
rhetoric of development and prosperity because they undermine the
rationale for limiting family size. Africa, which has received more
in foreign aid per capita than any other continent, has the highest
fertility rate in the world--about six children per woman. It was
not always so: In the 1950s, fertility in Africa averaged about
one-half child less per woman than in South America.
What changed? Could it be that Africans got three
times as much aid per capita as South Americans? Admittedly, Africa
has among the highest illiteracy and mortality rates in the world.
But these conditions were not new; indeed, illiteracy and mortality
rates were both declining even as fertility rose! Moreover,
anthropologist and development specialist Penn Handwerker (1991)
says that, in Africa, educating women barely changes completed
family size; at best it delays the first birth for a few extra years
while girls remain in school.
Multinational aid and liberal immigration policies
work at crosspurposes with their stated goals because they dispel
motivation to exercise caution and restraint. Family size targets
stay high or rise when people think that environmental limits which
formerly operated have been relieved; so a perceived windfall of
resources or emigration opportunity frequently results in a
population explosion in the region supposedly being helped.
Conversely, declining fertility--where it has occurred--is linked to
deteriorating expectations and to the absence of an emigration
Nevertheless, the demographic transition model still
inspires well-meant words and deeds. As recently as spring, 1990,
the president of the National Academy of Engineering, Robert M.
White, editorialized, "History shows that without economic
development there is no hope of changing the population patterns
that are the root cause of global pressures." Senator and 1992
Vice-presidential candidate Albert Gore (D-TN) is another who
repeats the prevailing wisdom. See his 1992 book, Earth in the
The present analysis 1) is in accord with modern and
classical scholars who state that fertility is a response to the
perceived costs and benefits associated with children; 2)
illustrates conditions which raise family-size targets (and others
which lower them); 3) exposes a historical fallacy underlying the
demographic transition model; and 4) examines recent aid,
emigration, and fertility in countries which have a significant
proportion of their nationals residing in the United States.
Motivation is Key to Family Size
Within biological limits, fertility is a function of
individual behavior (mating, contraception, or abortion). In the
short term, women or their husbands and families make decisions
regarding family size. Over the longer term, culture adapts in ways
that facilitate, or not, early and universal marriage, spacing
between children, and nonreproductive roles for women. Through these
individual and cultural processes runs the thread of purposive
and/or adaptive behavior.
Paul Demeny of the Population Council points out
that the drop to replacement-level fertility in much of the U.S.
urban population by the late nineteenth century is not explained by
"...people's access to some superior contraceptive technology-
`modern' methods were yet to be invented--but was the result of
individual motivation to keep fertility low. The experience of
Western demographic history resoundingly demonstrated that, compared
to micro-level interest in limiting fertility, `really suitable
technology' was of second-order importance for determining birth
rates. Lacking such technology, the Mayor of Peipei [in China] still
could have been confidently advised to get fertility incentives
right and then sit back and watch the birth rate fall" (1988, p.
458). Motivation to have fewer or more children, says Demeny in
effect, is the major determinant of childbearing and population
Charles Westoff also concludes (ruefully) that the
family planning concept is widely implemented. His 1988 study of the
non-use of modern contraception shows that "by and large,
contraceptive behavior--at least in the four developing countries
for which data are examined--is not grossly inconsistent with
reproductive intention" (p. 226). In Brazil, the Dominican Republic,
Peru and Liberia only 1.0 to 2.0 percent of women were not using or
intending2 to use contraception in a manner consistent
with their completed family size preference; the gap approaches zero
when contraception is considered as means of spacing children. That
is, non-use of contraception in countries where fertility is high is
not explained by informational or attitudinal obstacles. Westoff
concludes, "The overwhelming majority of women who want no more
children or who want to postpone fertility, at least in the four
countries discussed here, are behaving in a manner consistent with
that goal" (Westoff, 1988, p. 232). That is, fertility corresponds
to family size preferences.
Historically as well, the net costs and benefits of
childbearing appear to have been closely calculated. Malthus'
observations suggested to him that women or couples adjust their
reproductive strategy to the perceived advantage of children given
prevailing economic conditions. ( 1967; 1803). G. Ohlin cites
another early scholar's analysis of the "curious Tables of the
Births and Funerals of the City of Breslaw":
That the growth and Encrease of Mankind is not so
much stinted by anything in the nature of the Species, as it is from
the cautious difficulty most People make to adventure on the state
of marriage, from the prospect of the Trouble and Charge of
providing for a family (1961, p. 190).
Anthropologist P.W. Turke (1989) notes that adequate
subsistence is the prior condition for successful reproduction. He
suggests, therefore, that humans have been "selected" in the
evolutionary sense to plan childbearing around economic and material
The purposiveness of reproductive behavior can also
be inferred from the ineffectiveness of authorities in imposing
family-size policy. When families are determined either to have
children or restrict fertility they do so despite opposite official
Low fertility in the face of official pronatalist
policy occurs repeatedly. The native-born American population
maintains a below replacement-level fertility rate (1.7 in
1991)3 despite tax incentives for additional children,
transfer payments for child support, and gradual erosion of access
to abortion. The effect is also discernible in the Augustan and
later periods of the Roman Empire (Abernethy, 1979) and recently in
Romania. Although Nikolae Ceausescu's Communist government
criminalized both contraceptive use and abortion by married women
with fewer than five children, the Population Reference Bureau's
1989 Data Sheet reports the Romanian crude birth rate as 16
per 1000 persons in the population, identical to that in the United
States. (Compare with 29 per 1000 in Peru, 30 in Mexico, 31 in the
Dominican Republic and 43 in Nicaragua).
Conversely, rural Chinese enjoyed new prosperity in
the 1980s because of partial privatization of the agricultural
sector. Fertility rose, in keeping with Malthusian expectations, and
was hidden by shifting children between villages as necessary to
avoid detection by central government authorities attempting to
enforce a two-child-per-family policy.
A rural population explosion and migration into
cities in search of jobs ensued. As of 1990, the Chinese government
had curtailed migration from the hinterland into the larger cities.
Thus, the small-family-size policy was reinforced with a changed
incentive structure. Each sector will now bear the burden of its own
reproduction because the cities no longer will act as a safety valve
for excess rural population. Farmers may still profit from cheap
child labor, but will have to absorb the future cost of supporting
young adults who wish to found families of their own. One expects
that rural fertility will fall, but this is as yet unverified.
Historical and crosscultural data confirm that
motivation (rather than differential access to modern contraception)
is the primary determinant of fertility. A variety of behaviors,
usually buttressed by beliefs and values, limit or encourage
reproduction. The following section suggests that individuals
respond to scarcity by having fewer children, and to perceived
opportunity by having more children. Greater detail and additional
cases appear in Population Politics. Contrary to the
demographic transition model, the data show that economic
development does not cause family size to shrink; rather, at every
point where serious economic opportunity beckons, family size
Getting the Incentives Right
The demographic transition model postulates a number
of conditions which lead to lower fertility. This section presents a
selection of examples which, together, begin to constitute a test.
Cases include effects of perceived opportunity in western and
nonwestern societies, diachronic comparisons, and tracings of single
societies over time. Test each one against the predictions of the
demographic transition model. The predictions are:
*modernization lowers fertility
*urbanization lowers fertility
*prosperity lowers fertility
*education lowers fertility
*declining infant mortality lowers fertility.
Where one or more of the antecedents changes,
fertility should change, too. A positive antecedent predicts
declining fertility, if the demographic transition model is
right. But, instead, one sees that deteriorating conditions precede
1. Prosperity, urbanization, modernization
Some African countries that had historically high
fertility in the 1960s and 70s are now seeing declines. For example,
East Africa's buoyant optimism wrought by the 1960's expanding,
urbanizing economy gave way in the 1980s to a deteriorating
environment, curtailment of foreign aid, and the AIDS epidemic.
Against this backdrop of devastated morale, fertility fell between
14 and 20 percent in every country of the region.
Likewise in Egypt, the Aswan Dam's hydroelectric
power, oil and Suez Canal revenues, plus $2.5 million annual United
States aid from the 1980 Camp David accord (Egypt's share for
Egypt-Israeli peacemaking) promoted rapid urbanization, expansion of
healthcare and education, and modernization through the early 1980s.
All of this was supposed--according to demographic transition
theorists--to lower fertility. But it did not work out that way.
After slight declines in the early 1970s, fertility stalled for over
a decade at about 6.0 births per woman.
By the mid 1980s it became impossible for the
average Egyptian to ignore signals that their situation was getting
rapidly worse. Population growth was staying ahead of gains in
wealth so that per capita income actually shrank. A historically
rich land is home to 75 million very poor people, nearly 40 million
more than in 1974. The London Economist (1990) calls Egypt
"the Mediterranean's Bangladesh." This scenario is heralding a
now-rapid fertility decline. Egyptian women averaged 4.5 children in
1991. The decline cannot be traced to improving education or
improving anything else, and it cannot come too soon. The population
already almost certainly exceeds the longterm carrying capacity of
Egypt's lands and resources.
Similarly, Sudan's fertility rate dropped by 17
percent (to 5.0 births per woman) during the late 1980s. This trend
could have many explanations, but prosperity and modern family
planning are nonstarters. A Newsletter ("Fertility
Declining," 1991) of the Demographic and Health Surveys states: "The
use of contraception, although increasing, is still very low (6
percent of couples) and probably has had little impact on
fertility." Instead, the decline is attributed mainly to later ages
for marriage and first birth among the predominantly Moslem
population. Believers in a benign, orderly demographic transition
would have one look for socioeconomic development and modernization
as the underlying causes of this later childbearing. But in reality,
the Sudanese economy deteriorated markedly during the 1980s, the
government remained authoritarian, people lost hope, and famine was
Also in Brazil, the worsening conditions of the
1980s coincided with a 50 percent drop in the fertility rate.
Observers attribute the freefall to economic stagnation and rising
infant mortality. And Indonesia saw fertility decline most among
people on the most crowded islands and farmers who live on the most
eroded slopes, i.e., the most impoverished.
So much for needing development and prosperity in
order to lower fertility. Instead one sees declines in family size
coming only as times get significantly harder. The Indonesian
example also shows that farming is not necessarily associated with
high fertility, a conclusion supported by European history.
Only the enrichment of farmers relative to their
expectations--as seen in China in the early 1980s--stimulates high
fertility. Farmers also became suddenly prosperous and fertility
skyrocketed when the potato was introduced into Ireland in 1745
(Abernethy, 1979). Land distribution to Turkish sharecroppers in the
middle of the twentieth century provides a similar, unambiguous
insight into cause and effect: Aswad (1981) states that the new
wealth was very quickly followed by a baby boom. Some who received
land had so many children born after the land redistribution that
their family size rose to twice the usual number for that part of
Turkey. The new, higher average was 6.4 children per family. Sudden
windfalls raise fertility.
2. Child Mortality
Change in child mortality is another sign of the
times. Falling infant mortality is a joyous trend and one wishes
that achieving it would lower fertility. Nevertheless, John Wyon's
project in Khanna, India showed up the futility of changing family
size preferences with even the most inclusive healthcare programs.
For six years, Wyon's group provided a whole village with education,
nutritional supplements, public health and direct medical care.
Eventually everyone knew about contraception, villagers had positive
attitudes toward the health care providers and family planning, and
infant mortality had fallen way down. But the fertility rate stayed
way up (Wyon, 1971).
Eventually, Wyon's group figured out why. The Khanna
people liked large families. Khannaians were delighted that now,
with lower infant mortality and more village services, they could
have the six surviving children they always wanted. Maurice King
(1990) summarizes the international data on infant mortality this
way: "The view that, if the child death rate declines sufficiently,
the birth rate must decline also, and that there is a causal link
between them is untenable if the data are examined closely. Indeed
the opposite can occur."
Insights into the process are all around us. In
Haiti, Save the Children Fund set out to learn if women who had lost
children compensated by increasing their total number of births. The
exactly opposite effect was found: Women who had never lost children
had the most births; women who had an infant die were least likely
to continue childbearing. Indeed, studies in several continents
fail to find that high child mortality leads to more births.
Comparison of Indian women who had lost young children with those
whose family was intact showed no increased childbearing among the
former. Research in Guatemala yielded similar results: Women who had
lost children did not desire additional births as
replacements. Cross-cultural data implicate infanticide in some
deaths (Abernethy, 1979; Hern, 1991). Women do not set out to
replace an infant which they had felt unable to raise.
Historical data shed further light on the sequence
of declining fertility and infant mortality. Fertility, it seems,
often declines even while infant mortality stays high or rises. The
Population Reference Bureau (1990) quotes an analysis of declining
fertility in the first and second German Reichs: Reviewing the
records from 1871 onward of the Reich's 71 administrative areas,
John Knodel (1974) states that "`[T]he decline in infant mortality
could not have been an initiating cause of the fertility decline in
most areas,' because fertility began to fall before, or at the same
time as infant mortality."
Still stronger evidence that declining mortality was
not a cause of lower fertility comes from France, the country which
led Europe into the fertility transition. Catherine Rollet-Echalier
(1990) finds that small family size was established by 1850, but the
decline in infant mortality was not recognizable until the twentieth
Reader take note that even in Europe, the model for
the demographic transition, a sequence of urbanization,
modernization, declining infant mortality and increasing prosperity
followed by falling fertility is not real, but imagined. One
should look for a continuing stream of new data that document a
Expect to see that parents want more children
when they believe that opportunity is expanding. The expected
sequence is exactly opposite to what writers on the demographic
transition have taught a generation of policy-makers to believe.
Optimism is the Human Condition
Any number of developments create a perception of
economic opportunity. New trading partners, cheap land, improved
technology, popular revolutions which are expected to redistribute
resources, and emigration in pursuit of a higher standard of living
have each been perceived as a way to escape environmental/economic
constraints; each such development also appears to stimulate
fertility. "Ecological release" is the term for fortuitous
conditions which lift pressures that would otherwise inspire
For example, cheap land consequent to the
depopulation of Europe in the Dark Ages followed by introduction of
the stirrup, horse-power, and beans--which provided a new protein
source and facilitated double-cropping--created a condition of
ecological release and set the stage for the tripling of population
size in medieval Europe. The Industrial Revolution and raw materials
from colonial outposts stimulated further population growth in
seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe. Superior technology
introduced into the Americas let settlers take possession of cheap
land and raise as many as ten or eleven children per family. Trade
with Arabs and Europeans and new job opportunities freed Pacific,
Asian and African peoples from the limitations of traditional
agriculture, hunting, or fishing and coincided with the start of
their population explosions. And upticks in the business cycle set
off fertility in the industrial world, e.g., the baby-boom in the
United States and post-World War II Germany. Most people seem ready
to believe in prosperity. They adjust family-size targets
India's experience illustrates the effect of both
trade and the popular movement which culminated in independence from
Great Britain. Her population was nearly stable from 400 B.C. to
about 1500 A.D. Population commenced to grow, reaching a rate of 0.6
percent a year4, with restoration of peace from Mogul
invasions and the stimulus of new trade opportunities. South India
enjoyed particular prosperity under the Vijayanagra kings. The
strongest of these, Krishna Deva Raya (1509-1530) is described by
Spaeth (1991) "as an early advocate of free trade. He imported
velvets and damasks from Aden and China, horses from Arabia,
elephants from Ceylon, gold, silver--and precious gems." European
trade offered further opportunity and population growth accelerated
after 1900. The real take-off came with independence, in 1947; the
rate of growth accelerated in the following decades, ultimately
reaching 2.3 percent annually.5
Political change linked to lifting repression or to
expectations of prosperity has often raised fertility. Cuba, for
example, experienced a baby boom when Fidel Castro replaced the
unpopular dictator, Batista, in 1959. Díaz-Briquets and Pérez (1981)
say the explanation is "straightforward... The main factor was the
real income rise among the most disadvantaged groups brought about
by the redistribution measures of the revolutionary government. The
fertility rises in almost every age group suggest that couples
viewed the future as more promising and felt they could now afford
Algerian independence from France in 1962 had a
similar effect on fertility. Thirty years later, 70 percent of the
population is under 30 years of age. The growth rate in 1991 was 2.7
percent per year.6 Unsurprisingly, seven and a half
million of Algeria's 25 million inhabitants are unemployed, the
disparity between rich and poor is rapidly increasing, and religious
fundamentalism threatens to negate women's hard-won civil rights
(Lemsine, 1992). Impoverishment and religiosity are likely to usher
in swiftly declining fertility--as they did beginning several
decades prior to Ireland's 1845 potato famine--so long as the
international community refrains from undercutting local perceptions
of scarcity with premature policies which promise relief.
Christianity has spread the ideal of the
unreciprocated gift. Indeed, the United States is often
misunderstood because giving is a tenet of its foreign policy. When
governments proclaim an intention to give--expecting nothing
back--it means one of three things in most parts of the world: 1)
the givers are fools; 2) they are very devious and plan to
entrap recipients in a web of obligations; 3) they have so much
wealth as to have stopped counting. But for the
salutary developments of western banks demanding repayment of their
loans and international agencies attaching political as well as
economic conditions to new loans, the third world would still be
settled on one of these interpretations.
The most dangerous conclusion that any country could
draw is that wealth is abundant and renewable. Nevertheless, that
unfounded view is widespread and encouraged by the international
rhetoric of aid. Promises overwhelm the reality that Earth is
finite; resources, limited; and that population growth is outrunning
every possibility of providing sustenance to all.
The scale of the global effort to help the third
world (and the deception it fosters) can hardly be overstated.
Harper's Index 1989 reports that forty countries rely on
foreign aid for at least a quarter of their national budget. Direct
United States government aid had climbed to 14 billion dollars by
1990, and much more is masked within unlikely-sounding programs in
the Departments of State, Defense, Commerce, Health and Human
Services, and Education. Easy borrowing from private-banks ended
only when Mexico defaulted on its debt in the summer of 1982. By
then Latin America, alone, had received $500 billion. The May, 1989
issue of The World Monitor recalls that "...donations from
foreign countries averaged about $20 per person in Africa...$7 per
person in Latin America and $5 per person in Asia" (p.34).
Such transfers of wealth cannot but perpetuate trust
in one-world rhetoric--a belief that the community of nations can be
relied upon to help, just like family. A sense of security grows
along with the felt entitlement to share in the world's resources on
the basis of need. Behind it all is the fantasy of abundance.
Efforts to plan for one's own future do not thrive in this climate.
Neither do private birth control nor national policies promoting
population control advance in the purposive mode essential for
avoiding the looming tragedy.
Conversely, countries which are self-reliant either
by choice or historical accident are more determined to stop
population growth. Isolation, beginning before 1949 and reinforced
under Mao Tse T'ung, made self-reliance a core tenet of
Chinese national policy. Indeed, news of a serious famine which ran
from 1958 through much of the 1960s barely penetrated China's
borders to reach the western world.
The famine was formative. No international
assistance blurred China's perception of reality, and Mao's
subsequent policy shows that he acquired a crystal clear grasp of
the finitude of resources and the need to cut demand. Reduction of
population pressure became a central part of the longterm solution.
Before the famine, official policy was aggressively pronatalist:
More children meant a greater nation. By famine's end, policy had
reversed. The one-child-per-family goal was in place by 1970.
Myanmar (Burma) also makes self-reliance a tenet of
national policy. The trade-off for doing without international aid
is "...isolation and lack of a full-fledged national family planning
program..." Nevertheless, without benefit of technical assistance or
funds for deploying modern contraception, fertility has dropped. In
1983, women averaged 5.2 children. In 1990 the fertility rate was
below 4.0, a significant decline. The Population Reference Bureau
(1991) admits that professional demographers are bemused: How the
Myanmarians did it "is unclear." But it is not unclear. Limits to
resources were widely apparent, and never in fact or fantasy did
illusions of being bailed out of their predicament enter into
Assumptions and values give form to behavior. When
ideas are realistic, the behavior they promote is likely to be
realistic and adaptive, too. Conversely, countries' beliefs that
others have the capacity and will to take care of them for the long
haul put them at risk. A greatly underestimated danger is that such
trust will undermine incentives for third world countries to limit
fertility while there is time to avoid worse tragedy.
Incentives related to migration opportunities--or
conversely, need to absorb one's own youth--are insufficiently
studied. However, it seems likely that the opportunity to emigrate
is functionally equivalent in its effect on fertility to foreign
aid, new trading opportunities, and popular revolutions. Emigration
relieves population pressure in the sending country and often
reflects anticipation of opportunity elsewhere. It is a form of
ecological release. Thus, one expects that it encourages preference
for large family size.
Two studies supporting this prediction have come to
my attention. Anthropologist Anne Brittain (1991) reports a positive
relationship between marital fertility and emigration, by district,
in present-day St. Vincent and the Grenadines. She concludes that
the "anticipated loss of children to migration may be an important
factor in maintaining high reproductive rates." Brittain cites
Friedlander's (1983) similar conclusion drawn from a comparative
study, by district, of nineteenth century England and Wales. Those
districts which "had high rates of emigration showed much less
reduction in marital fertility...than would have been predicted."
Studies modelled on Brittain's in the Caribbean are
sorely needed in Mexico, Guatemala, the Philippines, El Salvador,
Nicaragua, and Haiti. Good census data in Mexico suggest that it
would be feasible to compare fertility rates in the villages from
which California's and the southwest's Mexican immigrants
predominantly come with rates in areas which send out fewer
Opportunity to immigrate to the United States as
well as large-scale international aid are probable factors
contributing to high fertility in third world countries. No matter
the local poverty and unemployment, wealth may seem within reach.
Appraisal of environmental limits seems likely to be distorted
because of opportunity apparently available elsewhere.
U.S. Aid and Immigration Policy
Present U.S. immigration law was enacted in 1965. It
replaced the national-origin quota system and encouraged persons
from regions that appeared under-represented in the U.S. population
to immigrate; family reunification became the basis of visa
"preference categories." Subsequent modifications of preference
categories, the 1980 Refugee Act, and the 1990 Immigration Reform
Act result in 90 percent of immigration visas being awarded to
family reunification immigrants, and under 10 percent to
Total legal immigration, including refugees and
asylees, runs at 1 million annually. Illegal immigration by those
who come to stay is estimated at between 200,000 and 800,000 persons
annually. Former Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization
Service, Alan Nelson, estimates that 1 million enter the U.S.
illegally each year, with a total of 3 to 6 million in the U.S. on
any given day (Nelson, 1990). An indication of the magnitude is that
over 3.1 million persons took advantage of amnesty provisions in the
1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). IRCA's effectiveness
in controlling further illegal immigration is doubtful: although
sanctions are designed to discourage hiring illegal aliens,
employers meet statutory requirements by merely inspecting an
applicant's documents. Seventeen types of identification are
acceptable, employers are not responsible for the authenticity of
documents, and there is a market for rented documents (Skerry,
Both the push factor of overpopulation and the pull
factor of jobs and other benefits in the United States maintain the
demand for immigration. Rewards from having offspring who emigrate
include receiving remittances. In some rural areas of Mexico,
"remittances constitutes over 80% of monthly cash incomes"
(Sullivan, 1988, p. 1059; Wiarda and Wiarda, 1986; Hong Kong Women,
1989). Similarly, "Economists often say El Salvador's best export is
its residents. In fact, the estimated $700 million that Salvadorans
living abroad send back each year is more than the country earns
from coffee, sugar and all its other exports combined" (Johnson,
1992, p. 9A). Families in these and like communities may rationally
calculate that the chances of having at least one child emigrate
improve with the total number of children they have. Children may
seem a good investment as parents conclude that scarcity within
their own country, which would otherwise encourage reproductive
restraint, is outweighed by opportunities for their children to
Although the number of legal and illegal immigrants
continues to rise, their distribution as to country of origin
appears remarkably stable. Stability is in part a function of chain
migration of relatives exempt from the statutory ceiling on visas.
It also reflects the greater ease of immigrating when information on
U.S. procedures, employment, housing, and social/educational/medical
services is readily available within a network where some members
already are established. A Mexican campesino making his
decision to migrate considers Los Angeles, San Antonio, Houston or
Chicago as much of an urban option for him as Mexico City,
Guadalajara, Tijuana or Monterey. Wayne Cornelius (1989) concludes
"The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 has
not eliminated the basic economic incentive to migrate clandestinely
to the United States, nor has it undermined the powerful social
mechanisms that facilitate such movement. In Mexican communities
that have long depended on income earned in the United States, our
data show that most people continue to have an essentially positive
view of the U.S. opportunity structure: not as wide-open as before,
but still accessible to those with determination, perhaps assisted
by bogus documents and, even more importantly, by family contacts."
Country-of-birth tables published by the Immigration
and Naturalization Service (INS) show that 601,708 persons
immigrated legally into the U.S. in 1986. Countries with the
largest legal contingents were Mexico, 66,533; Philippines, 52,558;
Korea, 35,776; Cuba, 33,1147; India, 26,227; the
Dominican Republic, 26,175 and China, 25,106. Several small
countries had fewer immigrants, but cumulatively their numbers
represent a significant proportion of these countries' total
populations. About 15 percent of Haitians and 20 percent of El
Salvadorans are estimated to be in the United States.
Table I shows that fertility in these
high-immigration countries has been slow to decline. Only Cuba and
two tiny island societies have fertility levels that will stabilize
population in the foreseeable future. Historically, Cuba had low
fertility except for the blip associated with the Castro revolution
and, apart from an exodus of the upper class immediately after the
revolution and the 1980 Mariel boatload, emigration does not act as
a safety valve for excess numbers. Antigua-Barbuda, Barbados, and
Jamaica have become tourist destinations; hotel jobs opening up for
women help control fertility because childcare requires an
opportunity cost when women work outside the home.
Table II shows that seven countries with high
immigration to the United States (in proportion to their total
population size) have also received substantial U.S. aid.
Persistent, above replacement-level fertility in every country seems
Such observations suggest that precisely the wrong
incentive structure is in place, because perception that children
have a net economic cost appears to be a necessary condition for
overcoming large-family-size norms. Nevertheless, there is no sign
as yet that U.S. immigration policy will be weighed in terms of its
effect on countries from which immigrants come. The 1990 Immigration
Reform Act raised legal immigration by 40 percent, and bills to
relax enforcement provisions of IRCA have been introduced in every
recent session of Congress. Policy-makers err by not recognizing
that U.S. immigration policy, to the extent that it helps dispel
realistic appraisal of signs that population size is exceeding
carrying capacity, contributes to maladaptive responses and thus
almost certainly will increase suffering in the long-run.
Inducements for continued high fertility are
ill-afforded in South and Central America, Africa, and many Pacific
Rim countries. Central America (including Mexico) and The Caribbean
have about 150 million people (vs. 250 million in the U.S.), and
their numbers double every 18 to 26 years. Growing
populations may doom them. The U.S. hastens the day by neutralizing
local signals of scarcity.
The U.S. would help, not harm, by encouraging an
appreciation of limits sooner rather than later. A relatively-closed
U.S. border would create most vividly an image of limits and be an
incentive to restrict family size.
The scale of the third world population problem will
be--may be already--beyond the power of the community of nations to
resolve. The U.S. cannot help all who live and may die in misery,
but only the relatively few luckiest. The so-called help will be
outweighed by the suffering of the extra millions who will be born
if our policies, under the spell of the demographic transition
model, retard correct appraisal of environmental limits.
Often, allowing ourselves to be ruled by
good-hearted but wrong-headed humanitarian impulses, we encourage
ecologically disastrous responses among ourselves and our less
fortunate neighbors. Impulses, which seem in the shortrun to do
good, but which lead ultimately to worldwide disaster--and most
quickly to disaster in the countries we wish to help--are not in
1. This paper contains excerpts from a book in
press, Population Politics: Choices That Shape Our Future
(N.Y: Plenum Press/Insight Books, 1993).
2. Intention is relevant for women who are not at
risk for pregnancy either because of postpartum amenorrhea or
abstinence, or because they already are pregnant.
3. The overall rate of 2.1 is a blend of the
native-born and the immigrant sectors.
4. Population doubling times are computed by
dividing a growth rate into 70. Thus 70/0.6 = 117 years.
5. Doubling time = 70/2.3 = 30.4 years.
6. Doubling time = 70/2.7 = 26 years.
7. The INS counts someone as an immigrant in the
year of obtaining permanent resident status. The 130,000 Cubans from
the 1980 Mariel boatload began to receive permanent resident status
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