The Population Puzzle

The solution is found in addressing the impoverishment of families and the imbalance of power that perpetuates it

One of the articles in Caring For Families (IC#21)
Originally published in Spring 1989 on page 48
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

Aren’t there too many families? Doesn’t supporting families encourage them to bring more children into an already crowded world? Quite the opposite, argue Frances Moore Lappé and Rachel Schurman of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, more widely known as Food First.

In Issue #19 they described how U.S. foreign aid actually works against the common good. Here they examine the emerging view that poverty is the TNT in the population bomb, and they expand the analysis to include how the imbalance of power acts as its lighted fuse. They also spotlight several nations who, by supporting and empowering poor families, have brought their population growth rates down to manageable levels. And their conclusions have important implications for families far beyond the scope of the population issue.

The study from which this article is condensed ("The Missing Piece in the Population Puzzle," available for $6 from the Institute at 145 Ninth St., San Francisco, CA 94103) is only the most recent in a series of important contributions from Lappé et al. that includes such classics as Diet For A Small Planet (recently revised and updated) and Food First: The Myth of Scarcity.


World population in billions

hat do you see in this picture?

If what you see is a population "explosion," you are not alone. That’s precisely what biologist Paul Ehrlich dubbed these trends in his eye-opening 1968 book, The Population Bomb. Population growth rates in the third world are historically unprecedented. The world population has doubled since 1950, with 85 percent of that growth occurring in the third world.

But what set off the population bomb? What problems does it represent? And how can we defuse it to help bring human population into balance with the natural environment? In the past twenty years, this graph of population trends has become almost a "Rorschach test" in which people have seen strikingly different answers to these critical questions.

In this article, we examine some of these competing answers, introduce what we call the power structures perspective for understanding the population puzzle, and highlight several examples of very diverse nations who have successfully lowered fertility rates and slowed population growth. (Readers should refer to our complete report, The Missing Piece in the Population Puzzle, for a more detailed and fully documented treatment of the controversies surrounding these issues.)


Consider the perspective of the biological determinists: they see human populations overrunning the carrying capacities of their ecosystems. An extreme version of this perspective is found in the work of biologist Garrett Hardin, who, like Thomas Malthus before him, claims that our biology drives us to reproduce at a rate faster than our resources can sustain. Without government policies to prevent it, we are destined to overrun our resource base with hunger the tragic outcome.

This extreme neo-Malthusian view is generally discredited. But a soft-pedaled version – which still frames the problem as one of people overrunning resources – captures considerable media attention and dominates the popular understanding of the problem today. Much of our prior work, especially Food First and World Hunger: Twelve Myths, demonstrates the illogic of this perspective by showing that in many cases population density and hunger are not causally related. To cite but one example, China has only half as much cropped land per person as India, yet Indians suffer widespread and severe hunger while the Chinese do not. (In fact, India is a net food exporter.)

Fortunately, over the last two decades, a much more useful analysis has emerged from the social scientists and taken hold among international population agencies and the World Bank. This social perspective looks beneath the threat of populations overrunning resources to ask why third world populations are growing so fast and points to a complex interaction of economic, social, and cultural forces that keeps third world fertility (or the number of children a woman can expect to bear in her liftetime) high. These forces include the low status of women, the high death rates of children, and the lack of old-age security.

In the social perspective, high fertility is seen as an effect more than a cause of poverty and hunger. But unfortunately, it is in defining solutions that the promising social perspective falls flat, because it fails to confront the forces that generate and perpetuate poverty.


Peeling away another layer, we ask what lies behind the poverty and insecurity keeping birth rates high. In answering, we add a critical dimension without which we believe it impossible to understand population patterns: power. By this we mean, very concretely, the relative ability of people to have a say in decisions that shape their lives, from those decisions made at the family level to those that are international in scope.

"Power structures" is not a mysterious concept. We use it simply to refer to the rules, institutions, and assumptions that both determine who is allowed to participate in decisions and in whose interests decisions are made. The decisions most relevant to the population questions are those governing access to and use of life-sustaining resources – land, jobs, health care, and the education needed to make the most of them – and contraceptive resources. [See sidebar at end of this article.]

Decision-making structures fall along a continuum from democratic to antidemocratic. By democratic we mean decision-making structures in which those most affected by the decisions participate in them or – at the very least – structures that include consideration of the interests of those affected. Of course, power is never shared in completely equal measure in any social institution. But in our view, democratic organization exists to the extent that power is dispersed and no one is left utterly powerless. Antidemocratic structures, by contrast, can therefore be described as nonparticipatory – because those most affected have no say – or unequal – when power is so concentrated that a few decide exclusively in their own interests. Our thesis is that antidemocratic power structures create and perpetuate conditions keeping fertility high.

We do not presume that within a society a uniform structure of power exists from the political to the economic to the social. Asymmetry is more the norm. In China, for example, most rural people control enough land to secure their basic food needs. Even under the former collectivized system, everyone had the right to participate in economic life and share in the fruits of the land. At the same time, political leadership in China has not been freely chosen and people’s right to political expression has not been protected.

But the opposite imbalance is more common. In a number of societies – the United States is an example – political participation and expression are protected, but citizens’ rights to economic resources essential for livelihood and health care are not protected. So a significant share of the population goes without enough income to provide adequate food, housing, and health care.

And while structures of economic and political power may be relatively participatory at, say, the national political level, they may remain grossly unequal at another level – for example, when it comes to relations between men and women within the family.


When at least 1 billion rural people in the third world have been deprived of farmland, what are the consequences for fertility? During a period of rapid population growth, landholdings in many countries (e.g. Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines) have become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a minority, who seize land from the less powerful by legal means or by force. Without adequate land or secure tenure, and with no old-age support from the government or any other source outside the family, many poor people understandably view children as perhaps the only source of power open to them. For those in extreme poverty, children can be critical to one’s very survival.

For example, one study on the island of Java, Indonesia, found children to be an extremely important asset in the rural economy. As early as age seven, a boy assumes responsibility for his family’s ducks and chickens. At nine, he can care for goats and cattle, cut fodder, and harvest and transplant rice. And as early as twelve, he can work for wages. By his fifteenth birthday, a Javanese boy has, through his labor, repaid the entire investment his family has made in him. The labor of girls is equally important. In Tanzania, one study found that girls between the ages of five and nine spend an average of three and a half hours a day working on economic activities and in the home.

Moreover, the "lottery mentality" is associated with poverty everywhere. Third world parents can always hope that the next child will be the one clever and bright enough to get an education and land a city job, despite the odds. In many countries, income from just one such job in the city can support a whole family in the countryside.

And in nearly all third world societies, those rendered powerless by unjust economic structures also know that without children to care for them in old age, they will have nothing.

Of course, the value of children to their parents cannot be measured just in hours of labor or extra income. The intangibles, such as the added influence within the community that a larger family enjoys, may be just as important. And for most parents, children offer incomparable satisfaction, fulfillment, and joy. For the poor – whose lives are marred by much more grief and sacrifice than is true of the better-off – the role children play in fulfilling these very real human needs cannot be underestimated.


High birth rates reflect not only the labor-income-security needs of the poor, but the disproportionate powerlessness of women. Excluded from many decisions that determine their role in the family, as well as in the society at large, many women have little opportunity for pursuits outside the home. Perpetual motherhood has become their only "choice."

The best proof of this assertion is that, in one study after another, women’s education turns out to be the single most consistent predictor of lower fertility. As women’s schooling increases, fertility typically falls. Demographers surmise that women’s getting educated reflects a multitude of changes in society that allow women greater power.

Within the family, women’s subordination to men often translates into a direct loss of control over their own fertility. It has been widely documented that after several births many third world women want to avoid or delay pregnancy. But women simply do not have the power to act on their desire. As one doctor in a Mexican clinic explained:

When a wife wants . . . [to try] to limit the number of mouths to feed in the family, the husband will become angry and even beat her. He thinks it is unacceptable that she is making a decision of her own. She is challenging his authority, his power over her – the very nature of his virility.

Women who do try to limit their pregnancies – either with or without the consent of their partners – often receive little or no help from the state. Poor women have particularly limited access to health services, including birth control devices. And other cultural forces – for example, the Catholic church – further limit women’s freedom to control births. One can well imagine how difficult it is for Catholic women to use birth control if it means having to confess to a central authority figure in your community, the priest, that you have sinned. For many poor women, whose self-esteem is already low, challenging church authority can be virtually unthinkable.

The power structure’s perspective also recognizes that the men who hold power over women are themselves part of a subordinate group – those with little or no claim to income-producing resources – and that this also has important implications for fertility. As long as poor men are denied sources of self-esteem through productive work, and are denied access to the resources they need to act responsibly toward their families, it’s likely they will cling even more tenaciously to the superior power vis-à-vis women. For many men, this may mean showing their virility through siring large numbers of children, often with more than one woman.

To summarize our analysis from the power structures perspective, freedom of fertility choice is nonexistent where:

  • one’s financial security depends entirely or largely on one’s surviving children;
  • many births are necessary to ensure that even several children live to maturity;
  • health services, including birth control, are available almost exclusively to the better-off in urban areas, not to the poor;
  • a woman has no choice other than marriage and her only source of power is derived from her children, especially sons; and
  • few opportunities for education and employment exist for women outside of homemaking.


While average annual population growth rates in all industrial countries have been below 2 percent a year for decades, among the more than seventy poor countries only six – China, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Chile, Burma, and Cuba – had both reduced their population growth to less than 2 percent by the period 1980-1985 and cut total fertility rates by a third or more since 1960. Although not a country, the Indian state of Kerala also meets these criteria.

What do these exceptions tell us? What could such diverse societies have in common? Is it that they have carried out the most aggressive family planning programs? In general, no. Some have and some have not. A 1985 study that rated most third world countries according to "family planning effort" found that Chile and Burma had weak or very weak family planning efforts; Cuba showed moderate effort; and China, Sri Lanka, and Colombia showed strong effort. (Kerala is not a country and was not included in the study.)

Our thesis suggests, moreover, that even those three societies in which family planning effort has been strong could not have succeeded nearly as well as they have without social changes allowing people to take advantage of their birth control programs. Thus the striking parallels among these disparate societies lie in just such social changes. For example, four of the seven – China, Kerala, Cuba and Sri Lanka – have assured their citizens considerable security through access to a basic diet. They have had more extensive food guarantee systems than exist in other third world societies.

To understand these social changes more deeply, let’s take a closer at four societies:

Kerala * The experience of the Indian State of Kerala confirms the importance of socioeconomic change in reducing fertility. Kerala had a family planning program since the mid-1960s, which certainly aided in its fertility decline. But not until social conditions were ripe did people turn to modern contraception. "In Kerala," notes K.C. Zachariah, population analyst at the World Bank, "the steps came in the right order – a reduction in infant and child mortality, accompanied or followed by an increase in female education, followed by redistributive policies and finally by the official family planning program."

Kerala is three times more densely populated than the average for all of India, yet commonly used indicators of hunger and poverty – infant mortality, life expectancy, and death rate – are all considerably better in Kerala than in most low-income countries as well as in India as a whole. Its infant mortality is less than one-third the national average.

Other indicators also reveal the relatively better position of the poor in Kerala. Eleven thousand government-run "Fair Price" shops keep the cost of rice and other essentials like kerosene within their reach – a subsidy that accounts for as much as one-half of the total income of Kerala’s poorer families. Land reform, social security payments, pension and unemployment benefits transfer resources to the poorest groups. Expenditures on public health in Kerala, critical to any effort to reduce fertility, have historically been high. Health facilities are spread evenly throughout the state, not concentrated in the capital as in most third world countries.

Why is Kerala so different? From the 1950s onward, political organization among the poor led to their greater self-confidence. The poor came to see health care, access to land, decent wages, and old-age pensions as their right, not a gift bestowed upon them. And centrally important to our thesis, women’s status and power in Kerala are greatly enhanced compared to other Indian states. The female literacy rate in Kerala is two-and-a-half times the all-India average.

With these few facts about life in Kerala, we can begin to understand how one of a poor country’s poorest states could have achieved a population growth rate not much higher than Australia’s.

China * While more complex, China’s recent demographic history is equally telling. From 1969 to 1979, China achieved a dramatic transition from high to low rates of fertility. With one-fifth of the world’s people, China accounts for virtually all of the decrease in global rates of population growth in the past two decades. How was this accomplished?

Some credit China’s success to its aggressive family planning programs that began in the late 1960s. Through a network of "barefoot doctors" in the countryside, these programs reached into every village. But these programs did not arise out of thin air. They reflected prior, massive political change bringing a government to power whose ideological orientation was toward advancement for the whole society, not merely the narrow elite to whom the former government, as most governments, feel themselves accountable.

We can unequivocally condemn China’s totalitarian features while also recognizing that such a shift in power, from leadership long ignoring the needs of the Chinese peasantry to one attempting to address these needs, was a prerequisite to China’s population success record. Indeed, its extensive rural health care systems – a precondition for its family planning effort – would have been inconceivable without profound prior political change.

Other changes in Chinese society – such as far-reaching land redistribution, a guaranteed minimum food allotment, and the assurance of old-age security – allowed the Chinese people to opt for fewer children and clearly benefited women. And note that virtually all of China’s dramatic drop in fertility occurred before 1979, that is, before implementation of its notorious "one couple, one child" policy. In fact, the economic reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping at about the same time that policy was instituted appear to have reversed China’s trend – birth rates there have risen since 1980.

Chile * Until 1973, Chileans could proudly claim to live in the oldest political democracy in Latin America. From that system arose one of the most extensive public health and social security programs in the region – the key to explaining Chile’s exceptional decline in population growth. Not only did these social protections contribute to an early and swift decline in infant death rates, commonly viewed as a prerequisite for reduced fertility, but they also improved the financial security of the entire population, especially in old age. Under Chile’s public health system, free or subsidized medical care, including pre- and postnatal care as well as contraceptive supplies, is made widely available.

In recent years other not-so-positive factors, resulting from the policies of the military dictatorship that took power in 1973, appear to have contributed to Chile’s fertility. These policies have led to such economic hardship for the working class and employed poor that having children has become increasingly unaffordable. (Among the unemployed urban poor, however, children are still frequently an economic asset. They sell trinkets, comb dumps, beg from tourists, and, in the absence of alternatives, often become prostitutes to support themselves and their parents as well.)

Colombia * Of these success stories, Colombia – not known for its government intervention on behalf of the poor – appears to defy the preconditions of security and opportunity. But not entirely. Colombia’s health service sends medical interns to the countryside for one year’s free service, and infant mortality there is well below most lower-middle-income countries. It has also achieved high literacy rates, and according to the World Bank, over half of all Colombian women aged fifteen to forty-nine were at some point enrolled in primary school – even more than the comparable proportion for men (45%)!

Colombia’s record also demonstrates that shifting resources toward women, expanding their opportunities and particularly their education, has a much bigger impact on lowering birth rates than an overall rise in income. Colombia’s women, who are entering the paid work force at a rapid pace, appear to be achieving greater economic independence from men and therefore are becoming better able to determine their own fertility.


These examples bear out our essential thesis that the population puzzle is impossible to understand without employing the concept of social power. Within each of these societies, shifts in power relations in key aspects of family, community, and national life are what have made lowered fertility possible. In sum, convincing historical evidence suggests that when individuals and families are gaining power because their rights are protected – particularly the rights to education, medical care including contraception, old-age security, and access to income-producing resources – they no longer have to depend only on their own families for survival.

Working to change our own government’s perception of the kind of foreign governments it can support may be the single most important way American citizens can help address the population problem. Until our government transcends its deep fear of redistributive change abroad, our tax dollars will continue to support governments blocking the very changes we have identified as being necessary to allow people the option of smaller families.

The Arenas Of Power

The arenas of decision-making power affecting fertility, from inner to outer:

(1) Within the family, control over income, food, contraception and other resources is determined by gender roles and cultural norms.

(2) Access to land, housing, jobs, education, and health care are affected by power structures at the community level.

(3) National policies of public spending, taxation, land distribution and human rights greatly affect poverty and hence fertility levels.

(4) Finally, the global or international arena determines finance, trade & investment, as well as levels of military and economic aid

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