Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Economist on handling population growth, Houston-style

There are articles appearing all over the media about America hitting the 300 million population mark this month. My favorite magazine, the prestigious and influential Economist from Britain, chose to build their article on the topic around Houston as their case study. Read the whole thing. It'll make ya proud to be a Houstonian.

America's population

Now we are 300,000,000
Oct 12th 2006 | HOUSTON
From The Economist print edition

America's rising population will solve more problems than it creates

THE Lakewood Church in Houston has a space, complete with cartoon murals, for parents to leave their children while they attend a service. There is room for 5,000 children. Lakewood's size may be unusual—it occupies a refurbished basketball stadium, and Pastor Joel Osteen's televised sermons are watched by 7m people each week—but its focus on the family is not. “I love children because they are so pure,” says Victoria Osteen, Mr Osteen's wife and co-pastor. “For myself, [having children] has been an awesome, wonderful, full life.”

When Europeans hear the words “America”, “religion” and “family values”, they think of brimstone preachers raging against unconventional domestic arrangements. They often forget the more positive role American churches play in nurturing conventional families. Lakewood's ministries, for example, teach married couples how to communicate better and give them practical advice on how to bring up children and put the family finances in order. In such a mobile society people often have nowhere else to turn for friendly counsel. Hillary Clinton once said that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Often in America “the church is the village,” says Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston.

On or around October 17th, according to the Census Bureau's population clock, the number of people in the country will hit 300m, up from 200m in 1967. By as early as 2043, the bureau says, there will be 400m Americans. Such robust growth is unique among rich countries. As America adds 100m people over the next four decades, Japan and the EU are expected to lose almost 15m.

These are only projections, of course. Lifespans will no doubt continue to stretch and immigration rules may change. What is striking, though, is the gulf between the fertility rate in the United States and other rich countries. American women today can expect to have an average of 2.1 children. That is the number needed to keep a population stable, so observers sometimes take it as a given and say that America's population growth is entirely due to immigration. This obscures the point: for every big advanced country besides America and Israel, the alternative to “replacement rate” fertility is a baby bust.

The fertility rate in the EU is 1.47—well below replacement. By 2010, deaths there are expected to start outnumbering births, so from that point immigration will account for more than all its growth. And that average hides countries that have seen an astonishing collapse in the willingness of their citizens to breed. The fertility rate in Italy and Spain is 1.28, which, without immigration, would cause the number of Spaniards and Italians to halve in 42 years.

Falling birth rates are linked to prosperity. People in very poor countries tend to have lots of babies because they expect some of them to die in infancy, and because they need help in the fields and someone to care for them in their old age. The fertility rate in Niger and Mali, for example, is over seven children per woman.

As countries grow richer and women get educated, they have fewer children and invest more in each one. Whereas peasants in Mali cannot afford not to have kids, many Westerners fret that they cannot afford to have them. University is expensive, and if Mum (or Mom) decides to stay home, the household must forgo the salary she used to earn. Add to this the sudden halt to a life of carefree first-world hedonism, and it is no wonder that birth rates have plummeted in all rich countries.

But much less so in America. Why should this be? Religion plays a role, argues Mr Klineberg. Americans are more devout than Europeans, if church attendance is any guide, and their faith colours their worldview. Don Iloff, a spokesman for Lakewood Church (and Victoria Osteen's brother), agrees. Faith begets hope, he says, and if you have hope for the future, you are more likely to want to bring children into the world.

Polls certainly suggest that Americans are more optimistic than people in most other countries. Philip Morgan, a sociologist at Duke University, and Miles Taylor, a population expert at the University of North Carolina, cite several other possible factors. Birth rates are lower in more patriarchal rich countries, such as Japan and Italy, than in places where the sexes are more equal, such as America and Scandinavia. Perhaps the knowledge that Dad will help with the housework makes women more willing to have children.

America's wide open spaces also make child-rearing more attractive. Bringing up a large family in a tiny Japanese apartment is a struggle, even if you can fold away your bed during the day. The world's lowest fertility rates are in super-crowded Hong Kong (0.95), Macau (1.02) and Singapore (1.06). In America the average family-home has doubled in size in the past half-century, from 1,000 square feet (93 square metres) in 1950 to 2,100 square feet in 2001.

(A topic I've blogged about before.)

America's coastal areas are fairly densely settled, but families who cannot afford a spacious home with a garden in Connecticut or California can move somewhere cheaper. They often do, one reason why the mean centre of America's population—ie, the point at which an imaginary, flat United States would balance if only the people on it weighed anything—keeps moving south and west. In 1800 it was still near the eastern seaboard, in Maryland. By 2000 it was in Phelps County, Missouri, and heading for Oklahoma.

Houston, we have lift-off
Can America cope with a relentlessly expanding population? A look at Houston suggests it can. The city is one of America's fastest-growing. The population of Harris County, which includes Houston, grew by 21% in the 1990s, to 3.4m. The surrounding counties are booming, too. Since Houston has no zoning laws, developers can build wherever they think there will be demand. Rather than waiting for the city to extend sewers and power lines to outlying areas, they can issue bonds to pay for such services themselves, and pass the cost on to the people who buy the houses they build.

At the Woodlands, a 28,000-acre (11,300 hectares) planned community north of Houston, you can buy a three-bedroom family home on a quiet wooded street for $130,000. By comparison, the median house price in San Francisco is over $700,000. The Woodlands has good schools, 145 miles (235km) of hiking trails, golf courses designed by the three greatest retired golfers in the world, and a cluster of oil and high-tech firms.

It is also safe. “Police salaries are paid by the community, not the county, so we have more of them,” says Roger Galatas, who used to run the Woodlands operating company. The community makes its own rules. Restrictive covenants prevent anyone from uprooting too many trees, or building eyesores. Several houses share each mailbox, so neighbours chat when they pick up the mail.

Houston was 70% white in 1960, but is now a mix: 57% white (of which 42% are Hispanic), 24% black and 6% Asian. “Where you grew up is irrelevant in Houston,” says Tim Cisneros, a local architect whose mother came from Mexico. “Everyone is so busy making money they don't have time to worry about race.” Polls suggest that the picture is not quite so rosy—79% of blacks think blacks are “often” discriminated against in Houston. But 69% of Houstonians think the city's ethnic diversity will become a source of strength. It is easier to deal with a globalising world if your citizens have roots in many countries.

America's future could look something like Houston's present, argues Joel Kotkin, a writer on demography. As the nation's population surges, it will become more ethnically mixed and especially more Hispanic. Houston suggests that that will be just fine. Rapid growth may cause environmental problems, but it will greatly slow the pace at which America ages. Whereas in the EU by 2050 there will be fewer than two adults of working age for every person over 65, the proportion in America will be less scary, at almost three to one. The problems of growth, says Mr Klineberg, are easier to deal with than the problems of decline.

Can the world cope with a relentlessly expanding America? Many non-Americans will shudder at the prospect, but which alternative superpower would they prefer? China? If demography is destiny, they will not have to find out what a Chinese hyperpower looks like: the fertility rate in China is only 1.7, and there are almost no immigrants.


At 6:43 PM, October 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anytime a city gets press in a great magazine like The Economist it is a good thing. It takes Houston one step closer to erasing negative sterotypes. The one thing I have issue with is the polling for racial discrimination. One of the things that initially struck me about Houston is the lack of racial tension and vast opportunities for climbing the socioeconomic ladder.


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