A challenge for Filipino families

Calls to limit population growth in the Philippines are misguided, says a leading economist in an exclusive MercatorNet interview. Big families are the ultimate resource.
Leo R. Maliksi | Oct 21 2005 | comment  

Estrella and Arnulfo Pacheco had 22 children, if you count the three who were stillborn. This Filipino couple married in the late 1940s and raised 19 children by selling decorative plants and flowers. But large families are becoming less common in the Philippines, as elsewhere in Asia. The fertility rate declined from 7.29 in 1955 when Arnulfo and Estrella were building their family to 3.18 this year. So what was the sum of Estrella and Arnulfo’s contribution to their country? Has their big family hampered economic growth or helped it?

Leo Maliksi interviewed Dr Bernardo Villegas, senior vice-president of the University of Asia and the Pacific and chairman of the Center for Research and Communication, the most prestigious think-tank in the Philippines, about recent calls from businessmen and some political leaders to limit the growth of the population.

MercatorNet: Some population control advocates assert that a larger population worsens poverty. Do economic data in the Philippines confirm this assertion?

Villegas: On the contrary, as a team of economists at my University led by Dr Roberto de Vera presented in a recent study, poverty incidence actually went down as our population got larger. Consider the Philippines' experience from 1961 to 2000. During this period, our population increased almost threefold – from 27 million to 76 million. According to the Family Income and Expenditure Survey, poverty incidence decreased from 59% to 34% of all families in the country in the same period. It is true that poverty increased from 32% in 1997 to 34% in 2000, but this was most likely due to the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

MercatorNet: Some businessmen say that the current 2.36% population growth rate in the Philippines creates a great challenge to the country’s aspiration to attain high rates of economic growth and reduce poverty. Do you agree that “too many people” means “more poor people”?

Villegas: Available statistics and scientific studies do not support this claim. Bad governance and bad economic policies, not a large, fast-growing population, are the real causes of poverty. We have found that poverty remains unaffected or even decreases in a larger or increasing population. Population growth has little or no direct effect on per capita GDP growth. There is no basis for a policy that aims to reduce population growth to raise per capita GDP growth.

MercatorNet: Leaders of many Asian countries, for example, Singapore and China, believe that population control is indispensable to achieve rapid economic growth. In the case of the Philippines, what is to blame for the estimated 30 million (out of a total population of 88 million) Filipinos who live below the UN's benchmark poverty line of $1 a day?

Villegas: Along with poor governance, poverty is caused by badly implemented economic policies that lead to corruption, poor tax collections, lack of education and roads, lack of irrigation systems. Singapore and China are in fact experiencing alarmingly low population replacement rates and governments in both countries are concerned.

MercatorNet: In August 2004, Philippine Congressman Edcel Lagman introduced the Reproductive Health Act to the House of Representatives in Manila. The bill calls for "the limitation of the number of children to an affordable two children per family" and calls upon the government to "encourage two-child family size to attain the desired population growth rate". From what you said above, you obviously disagree with this.

Villegas: Aside from having no economic basis, we find that history shows that implementing a two-child policy will place the country in a virtually irreversible course of population decline and ageing and thus this country would be well-advised to avoid it altogether. The country’s population situation—where the labor force is growing faster than the dependent (youth and elderly) population—gives it a wonderful opportunity to reap a demographic dividend (a period of rapid economic growth) that would reduce poverty significantly for the next 35 years.

MercatorNet: However, you do agree that larger families are poorer families. A sample of families taken from the Philippines’s 2000 Family Income and Expenditure Survey shows an increasing proportion of poor families as family size increases.

Villegas: This is true. However, it would be poor judgment to use this observation as a basis for limiting the family size of poor people for two reasons. First, it does not prove that a larger family size is what makes a family poor. The more likely reason why some families are poor is the limited schooling of the household head. Our studies show that 78% to 90% of the poor households in each family size had heads with no high school diploma. Poor families are poor not because they are large but because most of their heads have limited schooling which prevents them from getting good paying jobs.

MercatorNet: Following through from the previous question, doesn’t a larger population mean more hungry and malnourished people? The experience of many countries in Asia and Africa seem to confirm this.

Villegas: On the contrary, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) statistics indicate that the food supply available for consumption has increased and the historical trend shows it can continue to outpace population growth in the future. The FAO statistics for the Philippines from 1961 to 2002 show that the food supply available for consumption increased in three categories: (1) calories per person per day: from 1,745 to 2,379.3; (2) grams of protein per person per day: from 40.6 to 56.1; and (3) grams of fat per person per day: from 28.7 to 48.4. These national trends follow world trends. Based on FAO’s food and nutrition internet statistics, from 1961 to 2002, available world food supply per person has gone up by 24.4% and enough food is being produced for everyone on earth to enjoy a healthy diet.

MercatorNet: Thomas Malthus was wrong then in predicting that unchecked population growth would exceed the means of subsistence?

Villegas: In his book The Ultimate Resource, Julian Simon has shown that in addition to food supply, the supply of oil, copper, aluminium and other resources has more than kept up with the demands of an increasing population. Simon has shown that amid population growth, resources have become less scarce by showing that their prices have gone down over time.

Additional persons born in a democratic society mean more minds and hands to feed additional mouths, shelter and clothe additional bodies, and educate additional minds. This is proven by history wherein every larger generation has left the world in a better state for the next one.

Leo R. Maliksi is MercatorNet's correspondent in Taiwan.

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