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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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Not every expert agrees with these assessments. "Nobody has yet proven that it's absolutely necessary to have population growth [to thrive economically]," says Martha Farnsworth Riche, former director of the US Census Bureau. "That's simply the model we all have in our heads. My personal belief is it doesn't have to be this way – that you can have economic well-being with a steady-state population."

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Ireland, for example, has a fertility rate (1.87 births per woman) that is below the replacement level (2.1) – less than half what it was before the country lifted restrictions on contraception in 1979. Since then, Ireland's "dependency ratio" (the number of working-age people compared with the number too old or too young to work) has dropped considerably. In other words, there now are relatively more wage-earners paying taxes to support children and the elderly.

"That change coincides precisely with the country's extraordinary economic surge," Malcolm Gladwell writes in a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine.

"It depends on what policies a country has and how different sorts of social arrangements work, and all that," says Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "All other things being equal, which of course they never are, the prospects of moderate population growth, additional growth in the labor force, a moderated pace of population aging – all of those things one might imagine being positives rather than negatives from the standpoint of enhancing prosperity."

Moderation is the key. A nation's population can grow too fast and overwhelm its resources. In the United States, by contrast, the rate of growth is slowing. But the nation is adding more people than ever before in absolute numbers because the population base is so much bigger than it was.

Slow progress on poverty

Has there in fact been enhanced prosperity for Americans during these nearly four decades of extraordinary population growth?

There's general agreement, as Henry Paulson said in his recent debut speech as Treasury secretary, that "amid this country's strong economic expansion, many Americans simply aren't feeling the benefits."

Today's poverty rate is a bit less than it was when there were 200 million Americans in 1967 – 12.6 percent last year, according to a Census Bureau report last month.

But because the overall population has increased, the number of those in poverty has also grown – from 28 million to 37 million over the same period. Whether an individual is likely to be officially designated as poor depends in large part on race. For non- Hispanic whites the poverty rate is 8.3 percent; for African-Americans, 24.9 percent; and for those of Hispanic origin, 21.8 percent.

"The real incomes of lower- and middle-class households have fallen since 1970, while those of the top fifth have increased dramatically," according to "America by the Numbers." Census Bureau and Internal Revenue Service figures bear out this growing rich-poor gap.

But at the same time, says Mr. Eberstadt, "poor Americans have been enjoying progressively higher living standards. They have been on the escalator as well as everybody else." His research shows gains among the officially designated poor in areas such as health and nutrition, housing, auto and appliance ownership, and travel.

As the US population grows and moves around, where people live also can reflect relative economic prosperity – across the country and within states.

In Oregon, once heavily timbered, dozens of sawmills in rural areas have shut down while blossoming high-tech facilities near cities have given the place a new nickname: the Silicon Forest. The largest private employer in the state now is computer chipmaker Intel.

But economic demography may not be destiny. Last week Intel announced that it will eliminate more than 10,000 jobs worldwide.

Next week: The impact of immigration.