Making it safe for progressives to talk about population

Time for action, Senator

Published in the Montpelier Times Argus, July 17, 2013

To Sen. Patrick Leahy:

Please reconsider your support for the proposed immigration reform as it will lead to further acceleration of our already unsustainable population growth. I am not so much concerned about your desire to resolve the status of an estimated 11 million undocumented persons; the other provisions of the bill, those that invite even more rapid population growth, are sure to make life more difficult for our children. Given our current challenges, wouldn’t it be better to address the status of the undocumented while adjusting immigration policy in ways that would stabilize U.S. population growth?

In the past, Senator, you have been kind enough to respond to my concerns. Today, I ask that you consider the current reform proposal in the context of those responses. For example, in June 2009, you wrote: “(T)he population level of the United States is inherent in the discussion of the number of visas that should be issued to immigrants. Other key concerns related to debates over the lawful immigration system are the economy, levels of unemployment, and the potential impact on social services.”

I took some comfort in that assurance, believing that you would look carefully at population growth as you guide the evolution of immigration policy. Considering the fragile state of our economy and our persistent unemployment levels, more rapid growth in the workforce can only make it still harder for unemployed and underemployed Americans to find good jobs. In spite of this, the “Gang of Eight” immigration proposal not only prolongs the high current immigration levels of the past two decades but also adds more worker visas.

Some have warned of the so-called population implosion, widely regarded as a threat to the economic vitality of developed nations, but few realize how dramatically the U.S. is out of step with that trend. Since 1980, the population of the European Union has grown by only 10 percent, while the U.S. population has grown by 40 percent, adding 90 million people. Furthermore, under current policy, the U.S. is expected to add another 100 million people by the year 2060, while the EU population will remain virtually stable. The rapid growth driven by current policy, not to mention the still more rapid growth expected under the proposed reform, is not conducive to a promising American future.

In particular, continued rapid population growth will exacerbate the troubling pattern of increasingly uneven distribution of wealth in our country, a trend occurring in lockstep with the rapid population growth of recent decades. Indeed, the current and proposed immigration levels, happily endorsed by Wall Street, are a demographic parallel to the trickle-down policies that the wealthy have implemented under the previous president.

That concern was expressed by Sen. Sanders, who likewise supports an amnesty provision but is not happy with the bill’s increased competition for jobs. In a recent interview for The Washington Post, he described increases in high- and low-skilled work visas as “a process pushed by large corporations which results in more unemployment and lower wages for American workers.”

On a variety of other issues, rapid population growth makes it more difficult to implement effective and long-lasting resolution of current challenges. We have fallen far behind in our investment in the infrastructure needed to handle this growth. Further growth in unemployment and underemployment will make it more expensive and controversial to implement Obama’s overhaul of our health care system. And consider how much our larger American population, so stubbornly wed to a high-consumption lifestyle, will further bloat America’s egregious carbon throughput and further alter the climate.

In the correspondence mentioned above, you responded to another question I had about the ideal size of the U.S. population: “I regret that I do not have a definitive answer to your question. Our nation will experience myriad changes in its ecology, culture, and industrial base in the coming decades. These factors and others will influence the optimal population level at those times.”

Given that you are currently engaged in an effort that will prolong this growth in the population, pushing it beyond the already expected 100 million more people by the year 2060, should I assume that you have acquired new data about future trends? Do you now know clearly what population size would be optimal for an equitably prosperous American future? Because if you haven’t yet found some magic window offering an ironclad understanding of our optimal population size, how can you be certain that we have not already surpassed it?

Mark Powell lives in Worcester.

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