Could a Make-Mexicans-Rich Policy Cost Less than a Good-Fences-Make-Good-Neighbors Policy?

Bruce Sundquist **

Edition 1, July 2010  (Updated 7/6/11)

The US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) estimates that between 450,000 and 500,000 illegal immigrants settle in the US annually. About 300,000 more come in and go home every year. They are mainly from Mexico and Mexico's neighbors to the south. Those who settle in the US contribute to US population growth of about 2.9 million per year. Economist Lester Thurow estimates the cost of the infrastructure expansion needed to accommodate population growth at one eighth of the GDP for each one percent growth in population.

The cost of accommodating a 450,000 increase in population in the US is therefore about $250 billion per year to provide the added infrastructure needed to accommodate these migrants. The cost of providing health care adds some unknown amount to this $250 billion. This explains why states near the Mexican border, such as California, are becoming economic basket cases relative to states further north. Since the number of Latin American who want to move north is far greater than the number that already have, there is a risk that the US states near the Mexican border could ultimately have Latin American standards of living.

The US has tried, in desperation, to staunch the northward migration of Latin Americans in a variety of expensive ways with little success. This is probably because Latin Americans are just as desperate to leave the miseries of Latin America behind as the US is to avoid having these miseries exported northward. Thus far, little consideration has been given to an alternative strategy based on reducing, if not eliminating, the bulk of the motivation for Latin Americans to migrate northward. Such strategies have probably been rejected out of hand, thinking it to be much too costly relative to strategies like building hundreds of miles of high walls. Below is the case for a "Make-Mexicans-Rich" strategy that is probably less expensive than its largely failed alternatives. The strategy has two components.

Return to the Home Page of this website 

1)~ The Family-Planning Strategy:

Over the past 100 years, only eight nations have progressed from developing-world status to, or close to, developed-world status. All eight of these nations made the conversion during periods of active family planning programs. Also, in recent decades, family planning programs have been particularly active in three Latin American countries - Brazil, Chile and Mexico. These nations now show the beginnings of a middle class - a rarity in Latin America. 

Still, Mexico's population growth rate has fallen only to 1.13 percent per year. This means that the cost of the infrastructure needed to accommodate this population growth is about a seventh of Mexico's GDP. Eliminating this infrastructure cost would greatly reduce the dire scarcity of financial capital that creates most of the poverty and other problems characterizing Mexico and essentially all other developing nations. A seventh of Mexico's GDP could provide a much-improved social security system, and a significant boost to government health care programs - benefits that Latin Americans currently must migrate to the US to enjoy. Clearly Mexico's family planning program needs further efforts to put a far larger fraction of Mexicans into the middle class.

Another constraint on the size of Mexico's middle class is that Mexico's population significantly exceeds the carrying capacity of Mexico's land. We see that in the extreme water supply problems in the north, the massive deforestation, the degradation of croplands, and other issues. Also, Latin America's tropical cropland soils are far less fertile than temperate soils. Also, wealthy multi-national corporations are converting huge areas of cropland and tropical forests to grazing lands to produce beef for export to the US. Employment on these rangelands, per acre of land, is a tiny fraction of the employment had the land been used for local crops and livestock.

Low-Cost Technologies: What most people don't realize is that various technologies have been (and are being) developed for reducing the cost of averting a birth to a few dollars. (The cost was about $600 a decade or so ago.) This suggests that the dire poverty of the developing world could be eliminated for a small fraction of the cost of the development and humanitarian aid that developed nations give to developing nations every year. So next time your congressman complains that he doesn't see any benefits from foreign aid, tell him to look in the mirror for the source of that problem. Foreign aid for family planning programs has been cut drastically in recent decades.

UN data (03U1) show that by far the most popular contraceptive is female sterilization. This is in spite of the fact that over half of the women in developing nations lack, physically and/or financially, access to female sterilization so they must often resort to often-dangerous illegal abortions. This perhaps explains why two of the four processes described below are processes for low-cost female sterilization.

Note that all four processes described below for better matching a family’s desired number of children to the actual number of children they have significantly reduces abortion rates and maternal death rates from illegal abortions. Despite this, those opposed to abortion tend to oppose most or all of the processes described below.

The Essure Process: In the developed world the cost of a surgery-free female sterilization via the "Essure" process is on the order of $500 – too expensive for developing nations in most cases. However, one Essure retiree has pointed out that the cost of an Essure process could be reduced, in a developing world setting, to the cost of two mass-produced plugs for the fallopian tubes (a few cents) plus the cost of ten minutes in a trained nurse’s office.

A little math using the same UN data (03U1) shows that such a process would increase the "contraceptive prevalence" for modern contraceptives in developing nations to well above 70 percent. A prevalence of 70 percent or more produces population decline. This would eliminate the $1.4 trillion cost of infrastructure expansion in developing nations; eliminate their dire scarcity of financial capital and the countless other problems that result from capital scarcity. It would also bring populations down closer to the carrying capacity of the land and fisheries. All this would enable developing nations to move closer toward developed nation status, as has been demonstrated by the eight nations mentioned above.

Quinacrine sterilization: Another low-cost technology for averting births is surgery-free quinacrine sterilization. It has been done on several hundred thousand women with generally good results. Religious fundamentalists have, thus far, blocked large-scale use of quinacrine sterilization in South and Southeast Asia. They have also opposed the Essure process. Millions of people have been exposed to doses of quinacrine far greater than what sterilization involves. Quinacrine sterilization would compete with the developing world’s version of the Essure process.

Mass Media-based technologies: The third low-cost technology for averting births is a mass media (radio and/or TV) approach that is also applicable to dealing with numerous other issues that degrade the quality of life in developing nations. Examples include adult- and female education, the rights of women to control their sex lives, benefits of smaller families, wider spacing between births, and other social issues that effectively, though indirectly, influence population growth.

These mass media approached weave their social messages into what are called "Social Content Serial Dramas" a.k.a. "soap operas" or, in Latin America, "telenovelas." In one study the cost of selling family planning was found to be 80 US cents per new adapter. This probably translates to a cost of less than $10 per birth averted. TV-Globo's "telenovelas" have been found to be the principle force driving Brazil's total fertility rate down from 3.4 children per woman in 1989 to 2.3 in 1996.

The leading, and most sophisticated, creator of social content serial dramas has been the Population Media Center (PMC). Its results have been attracting funding from large foundations and even from developing nation governments. PMC is active in dozens of developing nations, and is expanding to many more.

Misoprostol: The fourth low-cost technology for averting births is the drug Misoprostol. It is often taken together with Mifepristone (RU-486) to cause abortions. Misoprostol can also be used by itself to cause abortions. Women wanting an abortion take the pills and go to a hospital where a nurse performs vacuum aspiration to complete the abortion. Used by itself Misoprostol has a success rate of about 85 - 90%. This is adequate for developing nations where other abortion alternatives are worse or too expensive. It is approved as a treatment for stomach ulcers and other medical problems in most countries. Misoprostol has been shown to prevent excessive bleeding after childbirth. That bleeding is the leading cause of maternal death in the developing world. The WHO has added misoprostol to its core list of essential medicines for preventing postpartum hemorrhage. Misoprostol’s big advantage in developing nations is its low cost – a few cents in India or Mozambique for example. Also Misoprostol cannot be outlawed because of the other medical uses for it. It is usually available over-the-counter at drug stores. It has the advantage over its alternative oxytocin in that oxytocin is given as a shot, and it requires refrigeration. (Also see Some data here are from IPPF/WHR. Other data are from an article by Melissa Block in a 6/29/11 article in National Public Radio.

Return to the Home Page of this website 

2)~ The Improve-Mexico's-Agriculture Strategy 

Developing nations derive 50 to 80 percent of their GDP from agriculture. So improving developing world agriculture can produce significant improvements in the wealth of developing nations like Mexico. Most nations of the developing world, including Mexico, are in tropical climates where cropland soils have low fertility. Around 2001, soil scientists discovered that ancient Amazonians had developed a way of permanently improving the fertility of large areas of tropical soils in the Amazon basin. They are now working to rediscover how the ancients did it. Success is virtually a certainty, considering that ancient (7000 years ago) Amazonians weren't expert soil scientists.

In recent years, interest in this work has exploded to scientists in Southeast Asia, eastern Asia, and even the southern US. Soil fertility improvements of factors of 5-7 have been reported. An international conference on the technology will be held in mid-2010 in Ames Iowa. Part of the enthusiasm comes from the potential for eliminating developing world hunger. Another part of the enthusiasm is due to the fact that the fertile soils store lots of carbon permanently. So converting tropical croplands to the fertile soil holds the potential for halting, and reversing, global warming. The soil's added carbon storage capacity is more than adequate. Reversing global warming could be done inexpensively since tropical farmers provide all the labor, and are rewarded by greater crop yields. Those interested in this issue should search the Internet for the words "terra preta" and "bio-char."

There are other ways to significantly enrich Mexicans via their agriculture at low cost. Huge numbers of Mexican farmers have been forced to abandon their farms and migrate to Mexico's urban slums or to the US. This is because they have been forced to compete with heavily subsidized US agriculture exports. Protecting Mexico's farmers from these US subsidies could give Mexican agriculture an opportunity to modernize and increase its productivity.

Latin America's agricultural economy could also be enhanced by baring the importation of beef into the US from Latin America. The grazing lands there could be better used as tropical forests and croplands - uses that serve the local economy and employ far more Latin Americans, making them less liable to emigrate. In regions where grazing lands occupy a large share of the available arable land, local Latin Americans consume less meat than before the conversion to grazing lands. This would suggest that they become more impoverished as a result of grazing reducing the land area available for local crops and livestock.

Farmers in developing nations that must compete with imports that are heavily subsidized by the US, but who are not as close to the US as Latin America, have only the option of migrating to the slums ringing the urban areas of developing nations. There they become a part of the rapidly expanding "informal" economy where survival is often a daily challenge.

Return to the Home Page of this website 

The combination of the two strategies described above clearly holds the potential for Latin Americans to bring their economies, and their standards of living, much closer to those of the developed world. Their current emigration to the north, leaving family and culture behind, is probably something most people would rather not do unless compelled by extreme differences in economic conditions.

United Nations, "World Contraceptive Use 2003," United Nations Population Division, Department of Economic Affairs.

** The author has been researching population- and land degradation issues for the past 10 years. (See his website where many of the issues touched upon here are elaborated upon.)