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"What price growth...?"
Copyright 1998 The Seattle Times Company

Local News : Sunday, May 17, 1998

Is there a reason we can't just close the door and swallow the key?

Q: Is it really possible to slow down population growth?

A: They don't agree on whether it would be wise, but most people who have studied or considered the question say slowing down growth is possible - at least some, and at least in theory.

Q: Why only in theory?

A: Because no metropolitan area in this country has ever set out intentionally to limit how fast it grows. For most of the past two centuries American public policy has promoted economic development and growth, not discouraged it.

Some smaller cities have adopted slow-growth policies, but studies suggest the growth just went to neighboring towns. So it's difficult to say what might happen if an entire region adopted such policies. It's uncharted territory.

Q: Wasn't the state Growth Management Act supposed to slow population growth?

A: No, just handle it differently. The 1990 law orders counties and cities to examine population forecasts 20 years ahead and provide enough land for homes and workplaces to accommodate the growth. The act doesn't address whether the region should grow, just where and how.

Q: Couldn't we stop growth by just passing a law that prohibits people from moving here? Or a law that gives people who already live here preference for jobs?

A: First, even if no one moved here the population still would grow. We're having babies faster than we're dying. In fact, natural increase accounts for half our population growth this decade.

Second, a little obstacle called the Constitution prohibits states from putting up a fence. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled decades ago that the right to move freely from state to state, without penalty or discrimination, is part of "the very fabric of national unity." In the 1940s, for instance, the court struck down a California law designed to discourage indigents from moving to that state. More recently, federal courts have struck down state laws giving lower welfare benefits to new arrivals.

One significant source of Puget Sound's population growth, immigration, can be limited outright by Congress. But this region can't explicitly prohibit people from other parts of the country or other parts of the state from moving here.

It could, however, adopt policies that might discourage them.

Q: How?

A: By making life here more expensive or less appealing to newcomers. The trick is to do that without also making it more expensive or less appealing for those who already live here.

Q: Has anyone in the Northwest seriously considered such policies?

A: Portland thought about it in the early 1990s. Its political leaders ultimately opted to manage growth rather than discourage it after commissioning a study of no-growth and slow-growth policies.

The study, by ECO Northwest of Eugene, Ore., concluded that "policies to slow growth should not be dismissed as unattainable and, therefore, irrelevant." But the study couldn't say how successful such tactics might be: No one knows how much growth is the product of forces beyond the reach of local policies.

The study also said slow-growth policies could have undesired consequences.

Q: What kind of undesired consequences?

A: Economic, mostly. Higher housing prices. Fewer job opportunities.

Most Puget Sound area economists, planners and political leaders say population growth and the problems associated with it go hand-in-hand with a vibrant economy. In other words, we can't have one without the other. Policies that discourage population growth also would discourage job growth, they say. That would mean fewer opportunities not only for people considering moving here, but for people already here and for our own children.

Q: Is it possible to have economic growth without population growth?

A: Perhaps, but it hasn't happened here yet. The periods of greatest population growth in the Puget Sound area have also been the times of lowest unemployment, and vice versa. In the early 1970s and early 1980s, when the regional economy was hurting, more people actually left the region than moved here.

Q: What do the people who want to slow growth say about the economic consequences?

A: Some see another side of growth's economic coin: They associate growth with trends like stagnating wages, the surge in lower-wage service jobs, a widening gap between rich and poor.

Others say growth may benefit some citizens economically, but it hurts many more. Taxpayers subsidize growth, they say; if we didn't do that, taxpayers would have more disposable income to keep, or money for programs to provide jobs and housing for the poor.

They also say that whatever economic benefit growth provides must be balanced against what many perceive as a decline in the quality of life.

King County Councilman Brian Derdowski, R-Issaquah, says government could play the same kind of role in regulating population growth that the Federal Reserve Bank plays in regulating the national economy, stepping in to cool it down when it threatens to overheat and do harm.

Q: What else might slow-growth policies affect besides the economy?

A: The region's racial composition, perhaps. People of color accounted for more than 60 percent of King County's population growth between 1990 and 1996. The Asian-American population was by far the fastest-growing racial group.

If slowing population growth meant slower job growth, the region also might get older as younger people looked elsewhere for work and careers.

Some wonder if, in the long run, slow-growth policies might actually encourage population growth.

Q: How's that?

A: ECO Northwest's Portland study said it's possible that, if slow-growth policies improve a region's quality of life, more people might want to live there, even if it costs more.

Q: Is there an upper limit on how much population the Puget Sound area's environment can support?

A: A volunteer group called Sustainable Seattle has been measuring economic, environmental and social trends for six years in hopes of gaining insight into whether the region's growth threatens its long-term health. But no one has attempted to calculate how many people the area can ultimately sustain, if there is a limit; there are just too many variables and uncertainties.

Mary McCumber of the Puget Sound Regional Council, among others, suggests water availability might one day limit the region's population. But that could change if the region's citizens decide it's OK to withdraw more water from rivers and leave less for salmon. Trade-offs abound.

Q: If chinook salmon are added to the endangered-species list, will growth slow?

A: It's too soon to say. Elected leaders have raised that possibility, but they also say they think they can devise strategies to protect salmon without discouraging growth.

Q: Is there any way to divert new jobs and people from the central Puget Sound area to economically needy parts of Washington?

A: Government investment in projects such as roads and sewers can make a depressed area more attractive to some businesses. But a 1990 study for the Puget Sound Regional Council concluded that, while the Seattle area could successfully discourage growth, it probably wouldn't have much success in rerouting growth to places like Eastern Washington or the Olympic Peninsula.

The growth Puget Sound turned away either wouldn't happen at all, or would locate in places like Portland and Vancouver, B.C., which offer similar services, environment and amenities, the study said.

Q: Much of this region's population growth is babies, our own children. Does anyone talk about reducing the birth rate and slowing population growth that way?

A: That's one place governments fear to tread. Having children is a private matter. It touches on religion, morality and personal choice.

Northwest Environment Watch, a Seattle think tank, did explore the question in a book last year. It found that poor women and women who had been sexually abused in childhood generally had babies earlier and more often. Policies to address those problems could reduce the birth rate, too, it concluded.

One national group, Negative Population Growth, has proposed changes in federal tax laws to encourage smaller families. One suggestion: allow parents income-tax deductions for no more than two children.


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