P34. Raising the Birth Rate. A One-Third Increase Needed

[Letter to The Times, 26 June 1939, p. 10]

26 June 1939

To the Editor of The Times

Sir,--I read in your columns to-day that Lord Templemore deprecated "the tendency to place upon the prophecies of eminent statisticians and mathematicians more objectivity than their authors would claim." [1]

There is a suggestion here that the forecast of a great decline in our population is quite a problematic matter. This suggestion cannot be justified, and is dangerous in the circumstances. The salient facts are now beyond controversy; they are a matter of simple arithmetic rather than of the higher mathematics, and are open to every citizen to verify for himself. They are as follows:--

In order to raise the birth-rate to the replacement level it is necessary that the average number of children born to women should be increased by about one-third. The progressive loss of population, which will be consequent upon a failure of the birth-rate to improve, is about one-quarter of the whole in every 30 years. And if mortality were so reduced that no one died before the age of 50--a miracle for which we can hardly hope--only about two-fifths of the deficiency would be made good. These statements are simple and irrefutable. [2]

I need not argue that they endow the population problem with first-rate national importance. Your reader will understand that to raise the average by one-third will be a stupendous task. The conversion of certain classes of people to a more philoprogenitive point of view will not suffice to make much difference to the total figures; the change of heart will have to permeate the length and breadth of the population. Moreover, it must be understood that it is the average number of children born to all women which has to be increased by one-third. As many women do not marry, and of those who do many cannot have any children or cannot have a sufficient number, the size of the families of women able to have them must be increased by considerably more than one-third. [3]

No consolation can be drawn from the rise in births since 1934. It is not such as to alter the main outlines of the picture which I have presented. And to base upon it hopes of a further rise would be foolish, since a rise of this sort usually accompanies a revival of trade, and there was a very great revival between 1933 and 1937.

Furthermore, even if the birth-rate were raised to the replacement level now there would still be a considerable fall of population in coming years, this being the delayed effect of births being below the replacement level for more than 15 years already. If the age composition of our people had not been abnormally favourable to births and unfavourable to deaths we should already have lost some 10 per cent. of our population. We ought to be acting now as if this loss had already occurred. The argument that family allowances have not yet been proved successful is not weighty, since substantial family allowances have nowhere been tried.

Of course the time is ripe for a Royal Commission. It is mere mental laziness and wishful thinking to suppose otherwise. It is true that the Population Investigation Committee is making valuable inquiries which may throw light on the causes of the trouble. But science moves slowly, and its findings in this field are unlikely to be final. When more is known we can have another commission. I feel it safe to predict that there will be a whole string of commissions before this problem is solved. But every year that we delay makes the task in future more difficult. And so it is very much to be hoped that the admirable efforts in the House of Lords to arouse public interest in the matter will be extended on a wider front.

I am, &c.,

R. F. Harrod

Christ Church, Oxford, June 22.

  1. 1. The Times, report on the House of Lords debate on population of 21 June 1939: "Population Decline. Government Reply. Reasons for Caution" (22 June 1939, p. 8).

    2. Harrod gave figures on population decline in "Population and the Future" ( 1938:7 ), pp. 192-93, "Population Trends and Problems" ( 1939:1 ), p. 12, and "Modern Population Trends" ( 1939:18 ), pp. 5-7.

    3. On 28 June, Dermot Morrah commented from the letter column of The Times:

    • My friend Mr. Roy Harrod appeals to simple arithmetic, to simple arithmetical let him go.

      He enunciates the surprising theorem that since it is desirable that the average number of children born to all woman be increased by one-third, and since not all women have children, those who do must increase their offspring by "considerably more than one-third." But suppose that our population includes N women, of whom n have families, and that the average number of children for these n is 3a. Then the average for all women is 3an/N. Now if the n increase their average by one-third, that is to 4a, the average for the whole number of women is increased to 4an/N, that is, also by one-third. Thus, the philoprogenitive ladies have done their duty to the commonwealth and disproved Mr. Harrod's mathematics. ("Size of Families", The Times, p. 10).

    Harrod replied on 4 July: "Future of the Birthrate" ( 1939:14 , here as press item 35 ).


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