(December 2005) We have just celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Population Reference Bureau. Guy Irving Burch founded PRB in 1929 and did most of its research, wrote most of its publications, and gave most of its talks for the first several decades of the organization’s life. While we usually focus on PRB’s current work—we know it better, it’s relevant, and we’re proud of it—there is something to be gained also by looking back at PRB’s beginnings.

Burch was a person of his time—he shared prejudices that were common (although not universally so) to his nation, race, and social class. But unlike most of our grandparents, he wrote those prejudices down in clear and lively prose. It jars us to read in Burch, for example, about the exceptionally high birth rates of the “broad-headed Slav and the slant-eyed Mongolian races.”

Burch was also an outspoken admirer of Germany’s eugenics laws well past the time when a reasonable American should have known that eugenics was leading to genocide. So why resurrect Burch’s writings of the 1930s during PRB’s anniversary celebration?

One reason is that, while Burch was a person of his time, his time was not so long ago, and Burch was both intelligent and interested in the same issues on which we work. We can understand what he believed and why, and learn from his mistakes as we make our own.

There is also a more positive reason to look back at Burch’s work: The demographic paradoxes he described in the 1930s are startlingly modern. In many respects, we have gone back to his world after a 50-year post-World War II interlude. And since Burch had a keen ability to see underlying trends and discern their implications, we can learn something from him if we can understand the intellectual currents of his day and overcome our distaste for some of his language.

Ahead of His Time Regarding U.S. Population Aging

When PRB was a one-man show, Burch served as both its International Programs and Domestic Programs departments. In 1937, he published a two-part article entitled “Heading for the Last Census?” in the Journal of Heredity. The article presented an analytic but lively review of the literature and linked the major problems of world demography with the major problems of U.S. demography.

The first part of the article sets up a paradox. Burch argued that, while the world as a whole had an increasing population and was indeed overpopulated, the U.S. population (and those of northwest and central Europe) was not reproducing itself and was aging. As Burch wrote: “[A] continuously declining birth rate, especially when medical science is increasing our average length of life, results in an aging and an ‘enfeebled race.'”

He went on to argue that (a) one could not responsibly (nor, we now know, effectively) promote higher birth rates to alleviate population aging without exacerbating the problem of overpopulation; and (b) increased immigration was not realistically going to counteract population aging.

Interestingly, Burch does not mention the two great problems that population aging poses for us now—underfunded public pensions and expensive demands on medical care. Social Security had been enacted for the first time in 1932, and expanded in 1936. Burch did not foresee that Social Security would be very successful in reducing poverty among the elderly—in his time, the age group most likely to live in poverty. But he did foresee that income support for a growing number of elderly would become a major issue for outnumbered workers.

Burch’s belief that medical science was “increasing our average length of life” was more prescient than perceptive. He was writing at about the time that sulfa drugs were entering common use, and before antibiotics were available. When Burch was writing, doctors did not do very much, but they did it quite cheaply.

But Burch did prefigure modern writers in pointing out that the working-age population could remain roughly constant as a proportion of the total population (despite the growth of the elderly population) because of the corresponding decline in the child population. This phenomenon is basically what has happened in the United States in the last 30 years—although, as Burch also foresaw, that period is coming to an end and dependency ratios will grow.

Unlike many economists and demographers in the 1930s, especially Europeans, he was not particularly concerned about the effects of slow or negative population growth rates on long-run economic growth. “While there will need to be adjustments for a stationary or slowly declining population,” Burch wrote, “we shall have ample time to make them.”

The main drawback of population aging, in Burch’s view, was a sort of diminution of national energy. Again, in this thought he anticipated much recent writing on the subject. What offends modern baby-boomer sensibilities is that he quantifies the U.S. aging problem with the scary statistic that one in every five Americans was 50 or older—a proportion, he said, that by 1980 could be as high as one in every three. Today, of course, we prefer to use 65 as a minimum age for designating the elderly, or even to speak of the “oldest old,” those age 85 or over. Fifty, we prefer to tell ourselves, is the “new 40.”

The scary projection was in any case premature: Neither Burch nor anyone else in the 1930s foresaw the two-decade-long baby boom that temporarily slowed the inevitable result of long-term fertility and mortality declines. During the 1990s, for example, the U.S. population ages 65 and older grew no faster than the country’s population as a whole. This was a temporary lull, caused by the unusually low birth rates of the Depression years of the 1930s. The oldest age groups—those age 80 or over—were still growing much faster than the average during the 1990s. During the 21st century, the population ages 65 and over in the United States and most of its major trading partners will be growing rapidly in both absolute and relative terms.

The percentages of old people who are disabled have been falling for every age group since about 1980. Even so, the elderly disabled population will probably grow for several decades, simply because the entire elderly population is growing. If we substitute the less emotive term “population” for Burch’s imprecise, hot-button word “race,” then his concern about a possible connection between “aging” and “enfeebled” is hardly outmoded.

A Contemporary Appreciation for Immigrant Selectivity

It was clever of Burch to realize during his era that, in an underlying sense, the U.S. population was not reproducing itself. He wrote at a time when, as now, the country’s crude birth rate was higher than the crude death rate, and the rate of natural increase was still positive.

Alfred Lotka and Louis Dublin had explained the mathematics of population momentum in a 1924 paper, showing the necessary connection between the intrinsic rate of growth and the age distribution. This paper, which we now think of as a classic of mathematical demography, was actually intended to buttress a policy conclusion.

Lotka and Dublin were arguing against the restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s, pointing out that the positive rate of natural increase for the native-born population was largely an artifact of an unusual age distribution (high proportions of the population in childbearing ages)—a situation that would not last long without an increase in fertility rates or new immigration. By the time Burch wrote, the United States had experienced several consecutive years of net emigration: Recent immigrants had returned to their home countries during the Depression in greater numbers than new arrivals.

The period of severely limited immigration lasted just about four decades. But in the depths of the Depression, Burch could not foresee any change to the situation: “American scientists and laymen alike,” he wrote, “are now generally agreed on a policy of immigration restriction and selection.”

There is a long tradition of Americans being unable to foresee any immigration trends different from whatever is happening in the era in which they are living. Even when the 40-year drought was about to end with the 1965 Immigration Act, two successive U.S. Attorneys General (Robert Kennedy and Nicholas Katzenbach) both testified that little increase in immigration was expected, because the waiting lists for visas were short at that time. (In other words, because no one was waiting at the door while it was locked, no one would walk through after it was thrown open.)

Burch discussed the notion (common during his era) that the immigrants in the 1880-1920s wave were inferior to those who had gone before. His conclusion, enlightened for a U.S.-born Protestant of his time, was that “some of the finest and most capable people in this country are new arrivals and have proved their ability in a short time.” He did not automatically assume (as did other popular writers of the time) that the country of origin determined the “quality” of the immigrant.

Indeed, Burch had a strikingly modern appreciation of what we now call immigrant selectivity, the notion that individuals with the motivation to leave their homes and start a new life (as well as the physical health and wits to survive in a new place) are unusual. He did entertain the possibility that selection forces were less stringent for recent immigrants than in the past, thanks to improvements in transportation. But his outlook was inclusive: “Whether our ancestors came to this country in a sailing vessel or in a steamship,” Burch wrote, “we are all in the same boat now.”

Reflecting a Cultural Concern About Differential Fertility Declines

Citing several Swedish demographers, Burch attributed fertility declines in Europe to the closing of the United States to immigration. It would be another 40 years before the reports of the Princeton Fertility Project gave us careful determination of the timing of European fertility declines, most of which predated the U.S. immigration restrictions.

Burch’s concern with differential fertility rates was pervasive among prewar demographers. What is fascinating about Burch’s article is the particular subgroup differences that he chooses for his focus. He first defines his subject as “differences in birth rate among economic, social, racial, occupational, educational, rural and urban groups in the population,” and most American readers think: “Oh no, I know what’s coming.”

But that is his last mention of racial differences in birthrates. His concern is that “the lower strata in each group have the largest families and that the higher strata have the smallest families. That this can have no bearing on the future of our country is inconceivable.” The examples Burch cites are differences in fertility among “the unskilled laboring group” and “the professional group”; differences among people with different I.Q. scores; and, perhaps most surprising to us now, rural/urban differences.

Burch’s policy prescriptions are troubling. But these prescriptions could have been a lot worse and still have been within the mainstream of 1930s social sciences. As he wrote, “[T]here is almost unanimous agreement among competent authorities that those who are definitely mentally defective should not reproduce their kind. This can be accomplished either by segregation or by voluntary sterilization.” Segregation he dismisses as impractical. His saving grace is that he is only willing to consider voluntary sterilization.

Several state governments in the United States during the 1930s, and indeed national governments in Europe and state governments in India in the 1970s, certainly went further. One of the lessons of those sad experiences with eugenics is that the distinction between “voluntary” and “involuntary” is often unclear when it is the poor and powerless whose interests are at stake. But one can say on behalf of Burch that the policies he actually recommended now seem just (such as extending knowledge of family planning from elites to the masses) or expedient (such as easing the financial burden of child rearing).

Rather, it is his language one objects to: “[P]ersons who are backward and mentally far below the vast majority of our people should be enabled to acquire the knowledge of family limitation which their more fortunate fellow citizens now possess and practice freely.” He proposed family allowances to make childbearing more affordable to the “normal and superior individuals.”

Of course, Burch’s facile assumption that one can sort people into the “backward” and the “superior,” and that persons born into one group or the other will stay there, has hardly disappeared from modern life, though it has from professional demographic writing.

What We Can Learn From Burch

Intellectual history (“What did they know, and when did they know it?”) is a valuable study in itself. Professional historians are typically leery of the impulse to rummage around in history for exact analogies or solutions to present-day problems. But we can look to Burch for at least some PRB traditions worth upholding.

One is his ability to explain complicated ideas, the product of the latest technical developments in demography, in clear and engaging language, with a few simple diagrams. He explained, for example, the basics of population momentum and intrinsic growth rates without using those terms. His articles quote or paraphrase a dozen of the best contemporary scientists working on population issues, in the United States and Europe. Burch was writing for popular audiences, but he was reading the technical literature.

Of course, informal language has a short shelf-life, and some of Burch’s sentences (for example: “So what, we next ask, is all this statistical blue funk that gives the experts the jitters?”) sound as funny to us now as, no doubt, ours will to our grandchildren, if they still read anything we write.

The second habit of Burch worth emulating is his awareness of the diversity of demographic conditions. If the mark of intellectual maturity is the ability to keep two contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time, then Burch was mature.

In the 1930s, there was little reliable demographic information for any part of the world outside Europe and North America. But Burch was aware that the parts of the world for which there were good data were distinctive; stationary or declining population was imminent for these areas, while world population as a whole was undergoing unprecedented growth. This dualism is not apparent in the academic literature from the 1920s and 1930s, which was very heavily devoted to the problems of declining growth rates and took little notice of the world outside.

It is instructive to read, for example, one of Burch’s later articles in the Population Bulletin for August 1953, showing that Italy (“commonly thought to be the land of the bambino”) was already headed for below-replacement fertility. We’re still in the era of coexistence of population explosion and population implosion; we still need Burch’s ability to handle population problems in the plural.

And lastly, there is Guy Burch’s ability to distinguish statements about demographic trends from policy prescriptions. Let PRB’s founder have the last word, which serves as a précis of the demographic situation in 2005 almost as well as it did seven decades ago:

“The attempt to study the problem of birth and growth and death with an objective technique similar to that of the astronomer proves in practice not to be easy.…That the total population of the world is increasing no informed person seriously questions. That birth rates and death rates of European countries have been declining for several decades is admitted by all competent authorities. What interpretation is placed on these facts…is to a greater or lesser extent a matter of opinion, and these opinions inevitably differ greatly.”

John G. Haaga is the former director of the Domestic Programs Department at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. Guy Irving Burch, “Headed for the Last Census? I. Overpopulation or Underpopulation—A Review of Conflicting Opinions,” The Journal of Heredity 28, no. 6 (1937): 203-12.
  2. Guy Irving Burch, “Headed for the Last Census? II. The Differential Birthrate,” The Journal of Heredity 28, no. 7 (1937): 241-54.