Franker about population growth

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I can see President Eisenhower as he said it. His fine responsive face expressed his every emotion. He stood at his Friday press conference, Nov. 27, 1959. He had just been asked if he wanted US foreign aid money used to control birthrates abroad? ''No,'' he said emphatically. ''By golly I cannot imagine anything more completely a subject that is not a proper political or governmental activity or function or responsibility!'' He paused to see if he could make it stronger. No, he couldn't. He took the next question.

A press release from the Commerce Department comes to my desk this week. Well , well: An estimated 232.6 million people are now living in the United States, the Census Bureau reports. Let's see, that's 6 million more than were counted in the April 1980 census. The American annual rate of population growth is way down compared to some countries - Mexico, for example - but what a jump! Back in the baby boom year of 1956 the US population was only about 168 million.

Under the circumstances in 1959 President Eisenhower probably made the right answer. The world didn't want the United States to come around with threats of punishment if birthrates rose. But in the last 20 years demographers have been figuring. ''Except for the thermonuclear war,'' observed former World Bank president Robert McNamara, ''population growth is the gravest issue the world faces.''

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We talk more frankly about it now. President Reagan's spokesman for his first foreign aid appropriation, Peter McPherson, was clear and candid. He discussed ''family planning'' and said that rapid population growth ''exacerbates'' global problems under some conditions. The US ''has played an important part in bringing about decreased population growth rates,'' he said. ''We have led in developing and disseminating the most widely used contraceptive methods ... (and) in increasing motivation for family planning among individuals, communities, and national leaders.''

The Census Bureau doesn't take sides in policy disputes, of course. It normally offers three projections, high, middle, and low: using the middle one, now, it guesses that women's life expectancy will rise from 78.3 years in 1981 to 83.6 in 2050, and of men from 70.7 at present to 75.1. It thinks that total US population will increase from around 232 million today to 268 million in 2000 and then to an all-time high of 309 million in 2050. By that time a stationary population is indicated.

If the Census Bureau doesn't get into international demographic disputes there are plenty who do. That is not unnatural when two nations like the US and Mexico sit across a 2,000-mile border from each other with a growth rate in the first estimated by the Environmental Fund at 0.7 percent and Mexico's at three times that, 2.7 percent. The Mexican surge may make Mexico City the biggest metropolis in the world before long. As to the Earth itself, by one estimate 200 ,000 more people join its inhabitants every day; let's see, that's a city the size of Des Moines. A year's increase equals 73 million, or a country the size of West Germany. Where will they live, what will they eat? Ninety percent of the newcomers, records show, are born in so-called developing countries: the have nots.

The world's growth rate is gradually tapering off. Communist China is particularly sensitive about excessive increase. There has been a surprising change in viewpoint on the subject; this reporter remembers that the late Sen. Ernest Gruening (D) of Alaska couldn't find anyone else to hold hearings with him on birth control and hunger when the subject came up in a foreign aid debate.

New York Times reporter Ann Crittenden wrote 17 articles in 1981 on world hunger; she concluded that it is not the inability to raise food which causes world hunger and famine so much as it is the maldistribution of purchasing power among would-be purchasers. There is a gap here, she thinks. She adds: ''In most parts of the world the food is there and the means to produce much more is at hand. But no one is sure about how to get it to those who need it.''

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