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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Population Trends

According to The Economist (one of my favorite reads), the global fertility rate will dip below the global replacement rate ... for the first time in history, by the year 2020. (See the story at

Now the global fertility rate is not the same as the global birth rate. Rather it is the number of children an average woman is likely to have during her childbearing years. So, for example, if there were no early (childhood) deaths, the replacement rate would be 2.0 - two parents being replaced by two children. But since child mortality is higher in poor countries, the replacement fertility rate is higher there. In rich countries it is about 2.1. In poor ones it can go over 3.0. Globally it's around 3.0.

The story (in The Economist) goes onto explain that fertility rates and wealth seem to have a strong correlation. Fertility starts to drop at an annual income per person of just $1,000 to $2,000 and falls until it hits the replacement level at an income per head of $4,000 to $10,000. This roughly tracks the passage from poverty to middle class in most economies.

The link between fertility and living standards can be measured within countries too. Poor and wealthier regions of countries like India or China depict vastly different fertility rates, based on household income. So it's not merely explained by going from one country or one government to another.

Indonesia's Family Life Survey showed at, on average, each birth reduced by 20% the likelihood that a woman would have a job - thus lowering household income and pushing some families into poverty. (So smaller families made middle class status more likely.)

But the link between wealth and fertility doesn't explain everything. Many people in poor countries want fewer children - and family planning helps them get their wish. Studies have shown that there is a difference between the wanted fertility rate and the actual fertility rate. That difference is unexpected or unplanned pregnancies. The rule seems to be that most families in any country want one fewer children than they actually have. This would suggest that most families have at least one unplanned (or unwanted pregnancy).

One study in 2002 estimated that as many as 25% of all pregnancies in developing countries were unintended. Yet another found that more African woman say they want to use contraceptives but cannot get them. Unmet demand for contraceptives seems to be producing considerably more unwanted children in Africa. (The proportion of woman using contraceptives in Latin America and East Asia is four times the rate in Africa.) Of course another reason global fertility could be falling is simply education of women.

So the overall conclusion from this series of studies reported in The Economist is that high standards of living reduce fertility - and lower fertility improves living standards. As fertility falls it changes the structure of the population, increasing the size of the workforce relative to the numbers of children and old people.

Slowing fertility has other benefits too. It makes it easier for women to work, and boosts the size of the labor pool. With fewer dependent children, the household savings rate goes up - leaving room for more investment. In fact, this emphasis on disposable income in smaller households makes possible a more rapid accumulation of capital per head in a society. It can even be measured in terms of a country's GDP (gross domestic product).

Now why would I care about this or be so fascinated about this? Well, the scientists and researchers are extolling the falling fertility rate as a solution to global overpopulation, a solution to poverty, a solution to sluggish economies and more. Ironically, this seems to fly in the face of Biblical wisdom.

God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it ... - Genesis 1:28. Now what do you suppose God was thinking? Did He not care about the size of the labor pool or the standard of living? Doesn't God care about the GDP? Quite honestly, it would seem that this is indeed the case.

God told us to be fruitful and multiply. If you consider the reasons why most people don't - and why the global fertility rate is falling - they tend to correlate to falling morality globally, and increasing materialism globally, and at least regionally - increasing selfishness and self-centeredness. You see, the Biblical standard is for strong, robust families. Small families with large incomes never has fit into God's plan for mankind.

So I may be one of the few people on earth who isn't ready to celebrate the falling global fertility rate. I see it as a threat to the societies that God had planned for each of us to live in. You should too!

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