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Slowing U.S. Population Growth Rate Triggers Biased Reporting

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Whenever the U.S. Census Bureau releases population estimates, we see a flurry of news reports comparing the growth rates of cities or states, or comparing the recent national growth rate with prior years.  Sadly, there is a common denominator in all the reporting: every report starts with the unexamined assumption that a growing population is 1) beneficial, 2) possible, and 3) universally desired. Please let me know if you find a news report that doesn’t fit this mold; I haven’t seen a single one.

The headlines often provide the first clue that these assumptions are present. Here are a few examples from last week’s flurry:

NewsMax: 'Depression Demographics:' US Population Crawls to 317 Million

Boston Globe: Mass. Population Growth is Tops in N.E.

Fort Wayne Journal/Gazette: Indiana's Population Growth Continues to Lag Behind US

Santa Fe New Mexican: State Lags Behind Neighbors, U.S. In Population Growth

KVUE: The Big Boom: Texas No. 1 in Population Growth

TownHall Magazine: North Dakota Oil Fields Spur Employment and Population Growth

What makes this bias particularly insidious and effective is the subtlety of its expression. It doesn’t draw a lot of attention to itself. Its absurdity is only apparent once you've tuned your growth-bias radar. The implication is that the universal goodness of population growth is unquestioned. Obviously it’s a good thing. Of course it can go on forever (or at least we don’t want it to stop during our watch). The choice of words reinforces the myth, but doesn't trumpet it. Let’s take the example of U.S. Population Grows At Slowest Rate Since The Great Depression, written by Huffington Post Associate Business Editor Jillian Berman:

“America's population is growing at its slowest rate in decades, and the sluggish economy is mostly to blame, according to one expert.”

Here, using the word “sluggish” to describe the economy connotes that state of an economy is undesirable. Seeking something to “blame” for slow population growth certainly implies that the slowing rate of population growth is a bad thing. This might be forgiven if Ms. Berman was using these words only to describe the position of that “one expert.” What happens instead, however, is that she offers one “expert’s” view  and no conflicting views. The reader is left with the impression that all the experts share this view, and the reporter simply spoke to one to get some representative comments:

“The trend is "troubling," Frey said….”

The reporter doesn’t question this view. In fact she adopts it in her own words:

“this recent period of economic malaise has been plagued by low birth rates.…”

“Malaise” and “plagued” make it clear the reporter’s view. Reporters are expected to be objective, so when they openly judge the desirability of something it can mean only one thing: it is a judgment shared universally. Here’s another example of this (I’ve underlined the key words):

“…population growth shows little sign of gaining strength.”

It’s subtle, but “strength” comes with baggage. We usually use that word as a positive.

In U.S. Population Growth Slows to Just 0.71%, USA Today’s Greg Toppo and Paul Overberg quote the very same growth-booster:

“…growth for the 12 months ending July 1 was 0.71%, or just under 2.3 million people. That's the slowest since 1937, according to Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, who called this year's growth "underwhelming."

I certainly have a bone to pick with this demographer. Since when are demographers expected to cheer population growth and lament anything approaching a stable or declining population? Does the job description require that demographers despise sustainability?

What are we to think when we read quotes like this one?

"This isn't the end of civilization as it might be characterized, but the Northeast and Midwest have essentially stalled out completely,’ said Robert Lang of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.”

By assuring us “this isn’t the end of civilization,” Robert Lang implies it’s bad news, just not as bad as one might assume. “Stall” is another word with the connotation that something bad is happening.

One more example from the same story (emphasis is mine):

“New Mexico barely registered growth, ranking just above Maine and West Virginia. Blame a state economy that is ‘still pretty weak,’ said Lee Reynis, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico.”

In the Washington Post’s Population Gains at Near-Historic Lows, reporter Carol Morello gave us a virtual smorgasbord of growth porn:

“In a statement issued Monday, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said the latest census estimate shows that the city continues toward its goal of adding 250,000 residents within 20 years. ‘The new population estimate demonstrates that the District continues to be one of the most attractive and competitive cities in the nation,’ Gray said.”

“City Planning Director Harriet Tregoning said.…’The livability of the city, the safety of the city and the choices in the city are better every year, and people are excited to be here, come here and live here.”

“Margery Turner, senior vice president of the Urban Institute, said the slower growth rate should be a concern. ‘As we turned into the 21st century, we would have been flabbergasted to imagine these numbers,’ she said.”

“A growing city with a growing economy is a better place to be living, governing and working than a city that is hemorrhaging population,’ she said.” Ed Lazere, executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, said that many lower-income residents have been forced to leave the city in search of affordable housing in the suburbs. ‘We’d like to see the city’s population growing, and everyone who wants to stay, can stay,’ he said.”

Granted, these are not the reporter’s words. But we must insist these reporters talk to more enlightened experts rather than turning only to the usual suspects of growth-pushers when reporting these census stories. I was pleased to see this sentiment shared by Bruce Grant of Charlottesville, Virginia, who wrote into the Washington Post:

“The Dec. 31 front-page report U.S. population growth remains sluggish after the recession was unbalanced, suggesting that sluggish growth rates are bad news by focusing exclusively on short-term economics.

The article ignored the Malthusian argument that an ever-growing population is unsustainable on a finite planet and exacerbates global environmental problems. From that perspective, we should greet reports of declining population growth rates as encouraging news.”

More of us should be chiming in like Grant every time these stories hit the news.

Image Credit: Liz/Populational

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