Public Opinion on Population Issues

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Public attitudes toward global population issues have been more closely surveyed in the United States than in other countries; therefore this article focuses on the United States.

An overwhelming majority of the U. S. population correctly perceives the world's population as growing and believes that world population growth is a significant problem. This majority is divided, however, as to how serious and pressing the problem is. There is also evidence of some decline in the sense of urgency. A very strong majority supports the U.S. government providing aid to assist people in poor countries with family planning. Support is more modest, however, when the goal is framed in terms of getting developing countries to reduce their birthrates; Americans are more comfortable with the goal of helping women plan their families.

Perception of the Problem

In a September 1998 Belden and Russonello poll, 83 percent of respondents described the world population as growing. Seventy-one percent agreed (43% strongly) that "too much population growth in developing countries is holding back their economic development."

But this majority is divided as to how serious or pressing the problem of population growth is. In a June 2002 Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR) poll, 86 percent thought "world population growth" a threat "to the vital interests of the US in the next ten years." However, that majority was divided between 44 percent who thought the threat "critical" and 42 percent who thought it "important but not critical." Similarly, in an October 1999 Gallup poll, 88 percent said that "population growth internationally" is a problem; 47 percent, however, said it was "a major problem now," while 41 percent characterized it as "not a problem now, but likely to become a problem for the future." In a February 1994 Belden and Russonello poll, 73 percent said that population growth would have a negative impact on the global environment, with 46 percent saying it would have a very negative impact and 27 percent, a somewhat negative impact.

In most cases, a plurality or majority takes the more dire perspective. In an October 1999 Pew poll, which posed a pair of arguments, 56 percent chose the one that said that the growing population "will be a major problem because there won't be enough food and resources to go around"; 42 percent chose the one that said that it "will not be a major problem because we will find a way to stretch our natural resources."

Modest Decline in Sense of Urgency

There is some evidence that the issue of overpopulation evoked less of a sense of urgency at the end of the 1990s than it did in the early 1990s–perhaps because some of the public has become aware that global population growth has slowed in the developed world. In Gallup polls, the proportion saying that population growth is a major problem now dropped from 29 percent in 1992 to 18 percent in 1999. Those holding the less urgent view that it "was not a problem now, but likely to be a problem in the future" rose from 45 percent to 59 percent.

Nevertheless, the argument that birth rates in developed countries have become too low is not popular with the public. Belden and Russonello's 1998 survey tested the statement, "People in the developed, wealthier countries are having too few babies," and found only 22 percent in agreement, with 62 percent disagreeing.

Overwhelming Support for Family Planning

Beldon and Russonello's 1998 survey also indicated that there is broad consensus among Americans that family planning services should be universally available. A near-unanimous 92 percent agreed (69 percent strongly) that "all couples and individuals should have the right to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and the means to do so." In the same poll, 68 percent agreed with the proposition that family planning services were not "already available to most people in all parts of the world today."

Foreign Aid for Family Planning

A strong majority supports the idea that facilitating family planning is an appropriate purpose for U.S. foreign aid. The Program on International Policy Attitudes reported that, "when asked to rate how high a priority family planning should be in U.S. foreign aid programs on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning the lowest priority and 10 a top priority, family planning ranked quite high. In a February 2000 poll, the objective of 'making birth control available to people in other countries so they can choose the number of children they have' received a mean rating of 6.9, with 39 percent rating it at 10."

When asked directly about providing aid for family planning, support tends to be very high, especially if it is spelled out that family planning does not include abortion. In a 1998 Belden and Russonello poll, 80 percent said they favored (45% strongly) "the US sponsoring voluntary family planning programs in developing countries" when this distinction was spelled out (18% were opposed). In February 1994, the same question was asked, but the exclusion of abortion was not specified; a much lower proportion, 59 percent, favored such programs, with 37 percent opposed.

In a January 1995 poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), respondents were given information about the cost of U.S. foreign aid for family planning. The poll found that 74 percent wanted to increase (36%) or maintain (38%) the level of funding.

A majority prefers giving aid for family planning through United Nations (UN) population programs. In October 1999 a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked if "nations should share resources and information through groups such as the United Nations to promote birth control, or should nations determine their own population and family planning programs?" Only 40 percent chose the statement that nations should determine their own family planning programs, whereas 54 percent preferred the statement that nations should share resources through the UN to promote birth control.

Ambivalence about the Goal of Reducing Birth Rates

While support for assistance for family planning is high, the support for using aid for the goal of reducing birth rates is more mixed. More than 80 percent support aid for family planning, whereas aid for limiting population growth finds a modest majority. The reason for this ambivalence may well be found in the response to a 1998 Belden and Russonello question that asked: "Do you agree more with those who say the United States should encourage developing countries to lower their birthrates, or more with those who say it is inappropriate for us to do this because it may offend other people's cultures?" A slight majority of 52 percent thought it was inappropriate; 42 percent thought it was appropriate.

There is a strong consensus that there should not be any encroachment on the right to have children. In September 1998, 76 percent agreed (50% strongly) with the statement: "People should feel free to have as many children as they can properly raise" (23% disagreed). Presumably the response to this question is colored by a rejection of coercive birth control practices, such as those associated with China's one-child program, but it is also an indication that Americans feel that the United States should not take the position of pressuring individuals to refrain from having children.

Family Planning and Abortion

Most Americans do not make a link between family planning and abortion. A September 1998 Belden, Russonello, and Stewart (BRS) poll asked respondents in open-ended questions what came to mind when they heard the terms "family planning" and "birth control." In both cases, only very small minorities volunteered that these terms included abortion.

The Program on International Policy Attitudes reported that

Only a small minority thinks that an increase of family planning services in a developing country is likely to lead to an increase in abortions there. The same 1998 BRS poll asked: "If family planning were made widely available in a country where it had not been, would you expect the number of abortions to fall, or to rise, or would having family planning widely available make no impact on abortion rates?" Only 15 percent said they would expect the number of abortions to rise, while a slight majority, 52 percent, said they expected abortions would go down and 27 percent thought it would make no difference ("Americans and the World").

Americans are divided on whether the United States should help fund the performance of abortions abroad. When asked whether they would favor "US aid programs contributing the funding" of "voluntary, safe abortion as part of reproductive health care in developing countries that request it," 50 percent favored this and 46 percent opposed it. Likewise, the public is divided on the question of whether the United States should fund organizations that discuss the option of abortion with their clients. In an April 1998 PIPA poll, 50 percent thought "the US should withhold US funds from family planning organizations that discuss abortion," while 46 percent thought it should not.

A strong majority, however, opposes making the payment of UN dues by the United States contingent on the UN having such a policy. In the PIPA question just mentioned, respondents who said the U.S. Congress should withhold funds (or "don't know") were told there was a good chance that if the restriction was added to the bill to pay U.S. back dues to the UN, the bill would not pass. Twenty-four percent of the total sample shifted to rejecting the restriction, making a total of 70 percent opposed.

See also: Mass Media and Demographic Behavior.


Adamson, David M., Nancy Belden, Julie DaVanzo, and Sally Patterson. 2000. How Americans View World Population Issues: A Survey of Public Opinion. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

internet resource.

Program on International Policy Attitudes (Stephen Kull, Director). "Americans and the World" website. <>.

Steven Kull

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Public Opinion on Population Issues

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Public Opinion on Population Issues