Q and A: Which policies are most effective in reducing population growth?

Since 1970, birth rates have dropped, sometimes quite rapidly, in many less developed countries. This is an encouraging sign to those governments that have identified rapid population growth as an obstacle to their development goals. Declines have occurred in settings that vary widely. In an attempt to influence the population size and composition of their country, governments have established population policies.

Research studies have found that organized programs to make family planning information and services widely available have the most immediate results and cost less than other programs. Less developed countries that have implemented successful programs have made a strong political commitment to culturally sensitive, conveniently located outreach programs that offer users a wide variety of family planning methods. In particular, programs in which female family planning workers visit women in their homes bring about a tremendous increase in the use of contraception. In traditional societies, family planning programs are most successful when community leaders, those people who have a strong influence on a group's decisionmaking and on individual attitudes, support them. The importance of this factor is reinforced by a reanalysis of the fertility decline in 19th century Europe. The study found that a change in cultural attitudes toward the acceptability of limiting family size was as essential as the social and economic improvements that were occurring.

However, to reduce fertility to the level required to bring about slow population growth, social and economic improvement is necessary as well. Couples living in extreme poverty have little reason to think that having fewer children would improve their lives. Children may indeed represent their future security since many people depend on their children for household and agricultural work and for support in old age. Studies have found that when poor families achieve a certain level of income there is a drop in fertility. The availability of family planning services can help translate ideas about smaller family size into reality.

The status of women also affects fertility levels. Many women, especially in less developed countries, have few choices in life outside of marriage and children and tend to have large families. Investing in women, by providing education, health, and other services, helps to expand their opportunities and reduce their dependence on children for status and support.

Immigration policies are also used to regulate population growth. Some countries openly encourage emigration to relieve crowding and unemployment. Other countries restrict the number of people who may enter and become citizens. Some countries absorb many illegal immigrants despite specific policy choices, and others may choose to accept a large number of refugees.

Terms

Birth rate (or crude birth rate): The annual number of births per 1,000 total population.

Family planning: The conscious effort of couples to regulate the number and spacing of births through artificial and natural methods of contraception.

Immigration: The process of entering one country from another to take up permanent or semipermanent residence.

Less developed countries: Less developed countries include all countries in Africa, Asia (excluding Japan), and Latin America and the Caribbean, and the regions of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.

More developed countries: More developed countries include all countries in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.

Population policy: Explicit or implicit measures instituted by a government to influence population size, growth, distribution, or composition.