Donella Meadows Archives

Poverty Causes Population Growth Causes Poverty

By Donella Meadows

–June 19, 1986–

Everywhere in the world, in every kind of culture, the poorest people have the most children.

Does having many children make people poor?  Or does being poor make people have many children?

That is a hot question in the continuous struggle over how to spend foreign aid money.  Those who think population growth causes poverty advocate programs in family planning and population education.  Those who think poverty causes population growth favor direct economic aid, jobs, capital investment.  Take care of development, they say, and the birth rate will take care of itself.

Advocates of both sides have come to the village of Manupur in the province of Punjab in north India to prove themselves right.

There is nothing special about Manupur.  It is a typical Indian village, with a population in 1950 of about 1200, mostly farmers.  Its people are not well off, though their lives are slowly improving.  New seeds, fertilizers, and credit systems have caused wheat yields to quadruple since 1950.

In 1953 a team from the Harvard School of Public Health came to Manupur to try out one of the world’s first family planning programs.  They visited all homes regularly, took a census, registered all births and deaths.  They also instructed people about modern methods of birth control and handed out free contraceptives.

The Harvard team expected that the birth rate would fall.  The Punjabis were rural, poor and uneducated.  They had an average of seven children per family.  Many young people migrated to the city to find jobs; the ones who stayed inherited smaller and smaller plots of land.  Surely if families knew how to prevent having so many children, they would have fewer.

The people of Manupur politely accepted the contraceptive foams and jellies.  At the beginning of the Harvard study their birth rate was about 40 babies per 1000 people per year.  Six years later the birth rate had gone down a little, to 37.7.  But the birth rate had also gone down all over the Punjab, even where there were no family planning programs.

The Harvard researchers concluded that the villagers were not so ignorant after all.  Family size had always been controlled with crude methods such as abstinence and self-induced abortion.  Increasing prosperity caused people to want smaller families, because there was less need for children to work in the fields or support parents in their old age.  Once that happened, birth rates went down.  Modern contraceptives helped them go down more easily and quickly.

The next visitor to Manupur was Mahmood Mamdani, an Indian who had grown up in Africa and been educated in the United States.  He arrived in 1970, by which time Manupur’s population had increased to 1800.  Its birth rate had continued to decline slowly, to 35 per 1000.  Mamdani came to demonstrate that children were the only protection poor people had, and that contraceptives were not needed, not wanted, a totally inadequate substitute for the thorough political and economic revolution he advocated.

Mamdani reported that only the rich in Manupur used birth control.  The poorer the person he interviewed, the more that person needed many children simply to stay alive.  He quotes a carpenter, “If I have sons, they will work outside, labor even as animals do, but save.  While the rest work, one son will learn the new skills.  And maybe we will even be able to get some machinery with the savings of the other sons.  A rich man invests in his machines.  We must invest in our children.”

he villagers informed Mamdani that they had never used Harvard’s contraceptives.  Mamdani describes a house where he found “small rectangular boxes and bottles, one piled on top of the other, all arranged as a tiny sculpture in a corner of the room.”  They were contraceptives, used not to prevent births, but to decorate the house.

Twelve years after Mamdani’s visit the next set of investigators arrived in Manupur.  By 1982 the village’s population was 2400, double what it had been in the 1950’s.  Most of the mud houses had been rebuilt with brick and cement.  Nearly half the farmers owned tractors.  School enrollment had increased greatly — 81 percent of the boys and 63 percent of the girls finished the 10th grade.  The birth rate was down to 31 per 1000.

The new visitors were Moni Nag and Neeraj Kak, both of Indian descent, now working for the Population Council in New York.  The Population Council is a leading funder of family planning programs.  And Nag and Kak found that half of all married women in Manupur were using some form of birth control.

Nag and Kak interviewed some of the same people Mamdani had quoted, and found a very different attitude about having children.  One of them said, “Children are of no use any more in old age of parents.  They also do not do any work while going to school.  My son in the military does not keep any connection with me.  My son living with me has two sons and one daughter.  I have advised him to get a vasectomy.”

If different investigators can take their different biases into in the same village and all find what they are looking for, maybe they are all right.  Maybe the original question was too simple, assuming “either/or” when the truth is “both/and”.  Poverty does cause population growth and population growth does cause poverty.  Economic development means increasing control of both parts of the cycle; the ability to choose your family size, and the ability to make a living with something more than your hands and the hands of your children.

Copyright Sustainability Institute 1986


Print Friendly

About DMI

Since its founding in 1996 by environmental leader Donella Meadows, our Institute has been at the forefront of sustainability thinking and training. Our initiatives have addressed economic, environmental, and social challenges from a range of angles and at many levels. In everything we do, the disciplines of systems thinking and organizational learning inform and shape our work. It is this focus on whole-system analysis, combined with careful listening, truth telling, and visioning, that make the Donella Meadows Institute unique among sustainability organizations.  Read More

Newsletter Sign Up

DMI will be producing an E-newsletter with news from the organization, updates on the work of our fellows, and more. Sign up here if you'd like to hear about what we're working on.

Contact Form