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, 1992).

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 option.

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 Balance.

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 dynamics.

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. ([1789] 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 conditions.

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 targets.

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 preferences expand.

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 fertility decline.

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 widespread.

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 century.

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 different sequence.

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 reproductive caution.

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 accordingly.

1. Trade

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

2. Revolution

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 more children."

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.

3. Aid

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 calculation.

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.

4. Emigration

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 emigrants.

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 skills-based immigration.

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, 1989).

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 move.

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 that,

"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 unsurprising.

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 fact humanitarian.


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 in 1986.


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