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Mexico's dramatically shrinking families

A remarkable and little-noticed change has occurred in our neighbor just across the Rio Grande. Mexican women are having an average of only 2.5 children each - down from seven a generation ago. It has tremendous implications for the United States as well as for Mexico.

The most important consequence, of course, is a dramatic slowing of Mexican population growth. After almost quadrupling in the last 50 years, it will stabilize in the next 50. Mexico will still have far too many people - about 125 million, up from almost 100 million today - but the ecological, social, and political disaster many feared appears to have been avoided. Or at least the prospects of disaster have been reduced to manageable proportions.

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How this came about is itself a remarkable story. The idea that big families are a good thing was deeply ingrained in the Mexican psyche. Big families were social support institutions. So many Mexicans died in infancy or childhood that a couple needed to have a lot of children if enough were to survive to take care of parents in their old age.

Large families were evidence too of the continuing influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Anti-clericalism has been an article of faith of Mexican governments since at least the Revolution of 1910. But while Mexican men (especially politicians) might not go to church, their mothers, wives, and daughters do.

It was not only big families that were perceived as good. So were more people. Countries with big populations were thought to have more prestige than those with small populations. A large population contributed to national security. It was widely believed that Mexico's loss of so much territory in the 1846 war with the US was due to underpopulation of the territory in question. Nineteenth century Argentine politician Juan Bautista Alberdi's famous dictum, "to govern is to populate" became Mexico's mistaken principle of political science as well as a patriotic duty.

Mexico's friends north of the Rio Grande were inhibited from sounding the alarm about an impending train wreck. Even the feeblest warning would have been taken as a sign that the gringos were afraid there would be too many Mexicans. So most Americans bit their tongues while waiting for the Mexicans to figure it out for themselves.

They did this in 1974 in an abrupt U-turn of policy. President Luis Echeverria established not only a National Population Council, but a network of government-run family planning clinics. This coincided with, or perhaps contributed to, a similar, more gradual, U-turn in the attitudes of women. More women were moving into the work force, and more women yet were getting tired of having so many babies. They were still going to church, but they were becoming more selective in the rules they observed.

When all of these factors came together, the birth rate began to fall like a rock. That is very good news for the US as well as for Mexico.

The first piece of good news is a reduction in the expansion of the labor force. This reduces the pressure on the Mexican economy - and government - to provide more jobs. It also reduces the pressure of illegal immigration in the US. It does not remove the pressure already existing in both Mexico and the US, but it takes a big step toward making the pressure manageable.

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Lower population growth will also contribute to better standards of living in Mexico. Smaller families do not have to spend such a large percentage of their incomes on basic necessities - food, shelter, and clothing. They have more to spend on better quality necessities, on comfort items, and even on luxuries. Some of these will be imported from the US. The benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will become more evident. As Mexican family-planning propaganda puts it, "small families live better." The long-running economic boom in the US has been fueled by consumer spending; a more modest version of the same thing could happen in Mexico.

For Mexico, over a longer term, a macro spin-off of the benefits of smaller families will be fewer dependents to be supported by each worker.

Mexico can glimpse the promised land, but it is not there yet.

The population juggernaut had such a head of steam that it is not quickly or easily turned around. But the essential first step has been taken: The juggernaut has been slowed to a manageable speed.

* Pat M. Holt is a Washington writer on foreign affairs. He is the author of 'Secret Intelligence and Public Policy' (Congressional Quarterly Press, 1995).

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