Although demography sometimes seems as if it is a dry, perhaps somewhat boring, discipline it is always good to keep in mind that the counting of populations is also deeply political. As such, there is always the possibility that the figures that we take for granted as being accurate have been manipulated for political ends. This is not just a simple case of corrupt, third-world countries lying about the statistics (like perhaps in Nigeria). It is also perhaps seen in first world European countries publishing misleading emigration numbers (like Spain?) or in a global superpower hiding its true decline (like China?)
Misleading demographic numbers can also be used in different ways by politicians from across the political divide, as Joe Mathews argues is happening in California. Although the sunshine state is the USA’s largest at 38.7 million, this number is often “massaged” up. Thus, politicians and commentators routinely invoke the description of California as a “state of 40 million” and that it will be home to 50 million people by 2020. This latter claim has apparently been made for “more than a generation” but is inconsistent with the reality that California is “ experiencing the lowest rates of population growth in our history, with flatter immigration and a cratering birthrate”. By 2020, California will barely be able to truthfully claim that it is a “state of 40 million”.
Beneath the rhetoric, the state Department of Finance has been revising its estimates of California’ s demographic growth. In 2007 it was predicted that the state would reach 50 million in 2032. Five years later, that date had been pushed back to 2049 and last year the prediction was now 2051. Yet, according to Mathews, these figures have not yet filtered through to the political conscience for two reasons.
The first is nostalgia for the 1980s:
“It was in 1985 that the Population Reference Bureau first made the 50 million-by-2020 prediction, and the U.S. Census Bureau was still echoing that in the mid-1990s. Such projections have had an understandable hold on us, given California’s growth from less than 2 million in 1900 to 33 million in 2000. It took the Great Recession to convince demographers that we weren’t going back to the ’80s.”
The second is that population growth serves the narrative of those on both the left and the right:
“On the left, those warning of the environmentalist apocalypse rely on the Malthusian notion that California is being doomed by endless growth. That’s allowed them to justify opposing the replacement of aging infrastructure and the adoption of new energy sources. The twisted logic goes something like: ‘Don’t build it and they won’t come.’
On the nativist right, the narrative of endless population growth serves the anti-immigrant cause. Lately, the right has been blaming drought-related water shortages on a supposed surge in immigration that is not in fact taking place.”
As Mathews argues, both of these narratives are working – population growth has stagnated. But that in turn brings its own, familiar, problems – fewer children to support an ageing population. But that doesn’t seem to fit the current narratives as well as population growth, and the lesson from California is that demographics is a deeply political science.