Sunday, August 08, 2004

The more, the poorer?

Many people are amazed that President Arroyo, a former economics professor, would display a cavalier attitude toward the need for population control to alleviate poverty. Why, GMA should be having fits by now, they say. With a population now estimated to be 84 million and growing 2.3 % in a year (a "ticking time bomb," according to Senator Biazon), why does GMA not place population control high on her agenda? Is this intellectual dishonesty, or a case of presidential pandering to men in robes?

Hardly. While the popular press may think that there is a necessary inverse link between population growth and development, truth, however, is that there is little empirical foundation to support such conclusion. More people do not necessarily mean poorer households. The economists Sudhir Anand and Jonathan Morduch in Poverty and the Population problem, suggest, based on their observations in Bangladesh, that while poverty MAY be immiserizing in the short term, people act rationally in having more children because more children CAN mean better economic security in the long term. They write:

Thus,despite there possibly being a positive correlation between income-focused poverty and household size, reducing household numbers will not necessarily improve the welfare of poor households,and in the long-run it may exacerbate poverty --both narrowly and broadly construed.

The evidence on scale economies from Bangladesh suggests that adding children is likely to be much less costly than often thought, and the consequences for income-focused poverty may be considerably over-stated.

The economist Amartya Sen, writing for the New York Review of Books, also has this to say:

The appeal of such slogans as "family planning first" rests partly on misconceptions about what is needed to reduce fertility rates, but also on mistaken beliefs about the excessive costs of social development, including education and health care. As has been discussed, both these activities are highly labor intensive, and thus relatively inexpensive even in very poor economies. In fact, Kerala, India's star performer in expanding education and reducing both death rates and birth rates, is among the poorer Indian states. Its domestically produced income is quite low—lower indeed in per capita terms than even the Indian average—even if this is somewhat deceptive, for the greatest expansion of Kerala's earnings derives from citizens who work outside the state. Kerala's ability to finance adequately both educational expansion and health coverage depends on both activities being labor-intensive; they can be made available even in a low-income economy when there is the political will to use them. Despite its economic backwardness, an issue which Kerala will undoubtedly have to address before long (perhaps by reducing bureaucratic controls over agriculture and industry, which have stagnated), its level of social development has been remarkable, and that has turned out to be crucial in reducing fertility rates. Kerala's fertility rate of 1.8 not only compares well with China's 2.0, but also with the US's and Sweden's 2.1, Canada's 1.9, and Britain's and France's 1.8.

So if there is no incontrovertible proof in economics that a big population harms a country's development, why should we ever bother planning families? Because one documented problem with high fertility rates is that girls and women bear a disproportionate burden associated with the high fertility rates. The mothers needlessly face death every delivery and female children get served last during meals. ( Ever wondered why the women in destitute families are so skinny while the men seem to enjoy robust growth?) The issue therefore shifts from development (which has been our preoccupation hitherto) to gender.

What is to be done? Must the women suffer high fertility rates? Echoing Andre Gide in Corydon, Today half-seriously considers same-sex relationships as a possible low-budget solution since they offer " the same measure of pleasure without the demographic consequences deplored by Edcel Lagman."

But why is the president dismissive of overpopulation? Why does she prefer to focus on macroeconomics instead?

Not because she is pandering to the Catholic Church (although her stance now has the felicitous indirect effect of gratifying the priests) but because it is the pragmatic thing to do. Notwithstanding the vast literature on population and development, creating the conditions in which people decide to have fewer children has usually been a matter of improvisation. And that improvisation is too risky to undertake now that we are running stratospheric budget deficits. The President is right: all her energies, isandaang porsyentong lakas in anime-speak, must be applied into getting the nation's macroeconomics right-- before anything else.

As Newsbreak reported in an earlier issue, government debt is now 80% of the GDP. It goes as high as 127 % of GDP if the obligations of money-losing state firms are included in the computation. The clear and present danger is in the country's macroeconomics, not in our fertility rate as a people. Pace Rep. Lagman, the President needs to get our macroeconomic figures right first before worrying about fringe issues, our "overpopulation" included.

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