Pondering Pittsburgh: Prosperity Does Not Require Population Growth
Growing up in
town America in the 1940s and 50s was in
retrospect a great experience. Such was my fate: a
small stable nuclear family, conscientious
well-employed father, non-working mother, only one
sibling rival—a sister five years younger.
I recently went back to my home
Greensburg, Pennsylvania, for my 60th high school
reunion. In many ways, I found things hadn`t changed
very much. Greensburg is a quiet and prosperous city of
some 50,000, the county seat of Westmoreland County,
about 32 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. I imagine there
are many small towns and cities around the US that fit
that description. Certainly there are many in rural and
semi rural areas of Pennsylvania.
Of course, the dominant Western
Pennsylvania city, Pittsburgh, has
transformed itself from a smoky rust belter into a
high tech medical Mecca, whose population has been
halved, yet remains a comfortable, generally prosperous
place where people like to live.
That raises a relevant point for later.
After a good visit with an old
friend there, he subsequently emailed me a rather
poignant note which raised an interesting question.
My friend wrote in part:
"The one big thing I do wonder about in the whole immigration issue is
this: What would be the economic result if we were able
to stop or drastically slow immigration? I read in The
similar publications that
Japan, most European
countries (and China) all have enormous problems facing
them because of the
aging of their populations.
All of them have low birth rates within their native
populations and few
allow or receive much
“Economic pundits contrast their situations with that of the US which
has a relatively young population only because of
immigration. (Our population of
northern European descent has a very low birth rate too.)
“The countries with low immigration and aging populations are expected
to suffer severe problems in funding their equivalents
to our Social Security and
Medicare with a diminishing number young workers paying
into the system and more and more oldsters on the
“What would be the solution to funding our Social Security and Medicare
if we were able to stop immigration? When I look around
Greensburg and Pittsburgh which are ethnically Germanic,
Italian, British Isles and Slavic I see a population
which is old and tired.
“You can go door to door in Greensburg, as I have with political
messages, and find a large majority of retired people.
It is unusual in most Greensburg neighborhoods to have a
working-age person come to the door. We have almost no
Hispanic, Asian or African American population here.
“It is certainly comfortable for me and most of my friends and neighbors
to live in such a cocoon, but is it economically
feasible in the long run? I would be interested to hear
your enlightened view on this problem."
Good questions. I sought
perspective from a true expert, the Special Project
Director at the Federation for American Immigration
Studies (FAIR), Jack Martin, and got some thoughts that
are at least the beginning of an answer:
Jack offered these helpful
"Part of the answer is that, along with our greater longevity, we are in
better health longer and should be expected to have a
longer productive life. If that means working beyond
what is currently thought of as retirement age, so be
“There are going to be some shrinking pains, to correct for the growing
pains we are now experiencing.
But, there is not
any way to achieve a demographic transition without some
pain, and the pain that we should be experiencing is one
that leaves a more sustainable future for our
“Another part of the answer is that the period of low U.S. immigration
1925 to 1975
showed that we did not need to have large-scale immigration to have a
healthy economy (for most of that period). You might
want to look again at the Issue Brief
and Economic Growth
on FAIR`s website.”
“I would also suggest to your friend that he read Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train by Brian Czech. Czech is a biologist and
university professor. Publishers Weekly wrote about the
book, `[Czech] is as good at popularizing economics as
Carl Sagan was science.
“Finally, it is worthwhile to read the August 17, 2009 article in the
Monitor entitled "Is
Population Growth A Ponzi Scheme?"
Its author, David R. Francis, says that `notions that
population growth is a boon for prosperity – or that
national political success depends on it – are “Ponzi
former director of the population division of the United Nations.`”
Although population in places like
Africa is growing faster
than their governments can accommodate the new arrivals,
some leaders there still urge more population growth–in
Zambia, for example, which I visited in April.
Yet the latest research shows that
control of births has a much greater effect on curbing
global warming than similar money spent on carbon
September 21, 2009 report on Lou Dobbs Tonight
reporter Casey Wian colorfully said:
"The cheapest way
to stop global climate change is not converting to solar
power or buying a hybrid car. It`s
putting on a
That`s the conclusion of
a London School
Of Economics study
money spent on contraception is about five times more
efficient than money spent on clean energy technologies.
It backs up a recent Oregon State University study that
concludes overpopulation is the single biggest threat to
reports that when it asked a U.N. official about
family planning and the environment, the official
replied "to bring
the issue up would be an insult to developing
Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost: Reducing Future
Carbon Emissions By Investing In Family Planning |
A Cost/ Benefit
Analysis, By Thomas Wire, August 2009 (PDF)]
and what about nearby Pittsburgh, where I lived for many
years, which proudly hosted the G-20 this week? The
has just carried a glowing piece about Pittsburgh`s
transforming itself from a smoky rust belt citadel into
high tech medical Mecca. [Pittsburgh
Shows How the Rust Belt Can Be Polished Up
| Host of G-20
Summit Has Evolved, By Alexi Mostrous, September 24,
What needs to be further said is
that Pittsburgh is a microcosm of what the world now
needs to do—namely transition from a period of
unsustainable growth to a level of stability.
bugaboo, pushed by the greedy growth crowd, is proven by
Pittsburgh`s transition to be a hollow canard.
Donald A. Collins [email
him], is a freelance writer living in Washington DC and a former long time member of the board of FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. His views are his own.