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Is a bigger nation richer?

As the US population clock approaches 300 million, experts examine a possible link between growth and prosperity.

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In terms of pay for work, women working full time are no longer earning 58 cents to the dollar paid men, as they were in 1967. But at 77 cents to the dollar, it's still far from equal. (The change is just as dramatic if men and women working part time are included. See chart at left.)

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While men's median earnings remain stagnant at a bit less than they were in 1973, according to a recent report by the US Census Bureau, women's have increased by more than half. Still, at $23,546, median annual earnings for women are more than $10,000 a year less than they are for men.

One area where women have made noticeable advances since the height of the Vietnam War in 1967 is the armed services. They are flying fighter jets and helicopters, driving Humvees in Iraq, and commanding ships, squadrons, and ground units close to battlefields. Though they are prevented by law from serving in direct-action combat units, they are frequently in harm's way in Iraq where 56 women have been killed.

Double-amputee Tammy Duckworth, a former National Guard helicopter pilot shot down in Iraq, is running for the US Congress – another place where women are more likely to be found (and in leadership positions).

Overall, most Americans are better off than they would have been in 1967.

Real median household income has grown from $35,379 a year to $46,326. That's reflected in bigger houses; more cars; and more home entertainment centers, computers, cellphones, and other 21st-century gadgets.

Do more people mean more riches?

Does that prosperity have anything to do with population growth? Opinions differ, but at least in contrast to other developed countries many demographers and economists think so.

Families in Europe and Japan are not having enough children to keep their populations growing in the long term. That means their societies are aging rapidly. And it also stands in contrast to the US, which alone among the developed nations is expected to see its population surge in the coming decades. America's population growth is a function of three things: a fertility rate of just over two births per woman, a relatively high rate of immigration, and greater longevity.

"We're the envy of Europe and Japan for our population growth, for our level of fertility," says Samuel Preston, an economist and professor of demography at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Other Western societies are imperiled, I would say, by very low levels of child-bearing and their much-reduced ability to integrate immigrants into society," says Dr. Preston. "Their age structures are extremely antithetical to economic growth because they are so old and there is such a high burden of support required for the elderly population."

For US, a growing consumer market

Other experts note that a younger, growing population stimulates a workforce to produce more while energizing research and development and increasing the market for goods and services – all important in an age of globalization.

In a world economy that is increasingly "flat," as New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman puts it, having more immigrants may be important, too.

"For us to survive as an economic power we're going to have to not only trade with other people in the world but also bring a fair number of people here to be in our labor force, to help us understand how the rest of the world is operating," says William Frey a demographer with the University of Michigan and the Brookings Institution.

Payoff of a flat population?
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