The United States is not “full.” In fact, it is empty. Right now, the country has about 93 people per square mile. Many, many countries are far denser than this, and not just city-states like Singapore (more than 20,000 per square mile) or small island nations like Malta (3,913 per square mile). South Korea has 1,337 people per square mile, and Belgium has 976. If you tripled the population of the United States, adding the new Americans only to the Lower 48 and leaving Alaska and Hawaii intact and unchanged, the main part of America would be only about as dense as France and less than half as dense as Germany.
A transformation on that scale is almost impossible to imagine, in large part because the American political system has fallen into a state of torpor and dysfunction driven by, among other things, the absence of the shared sense of purpose that once bound the national experiment. But while contemporary politics is terrifying in certain ways, it has also opened up again the possibility of goals, and projects, and ideas — probably the biggest opportunity in a generation for new ideas to take hold. So here is one big one: a billion Americans.
When America faced down Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, we were the big dog. We had more people, more wealth, and more industrial capacity. (Back in 1938, the gross domestic product of the U.S. alone was larger than that of Germany, Japan, and Italy combined.) But against China, we are the little dog: There are more than 1 billion of them to about 330 million of us. Chinese people don’t need to become as rich as Americans for China’s overall economy to outweigh ours. If they managed to become about half as rich as we are on a per person basis, like the Bahamas or Spain, then their economy would be far larger than ours in the aggregate. To become one-third as rich as we are, like Portugal or Greece, would be enough to pull even. To stay on top, we probably need to grow the country threefold — to one billion Americans.
Conservatives argue that the country can’t take more immigrants — that it should effectively close its borders or, at the very least, restrict immigration to a trickle. Progressives tend to disagree, even while being inclined to say that the particular towns and cities they live in should be preserved as is, opposing any further real-estate development as a pernicious disruption. Meanwhile, America’s birthrate has slipped to a historic low, and nobody in the political mainstream seems to think we can or should do anything about it. But a three-to-one advantage in population is really hard to overcome. Thankfully, tripling the size of the nation is something that is in our power to achieve. It would just require more immigrants and more programs to support people who want to have additional children.
Of course, if we had a lot more people, we’d need to adjust a number of other things to make sure they had jobs and places to live. Housing shortages are common in many parts of the country, but the tools to surmount them are easily available and — like immigration — would cost taxpayers nothing. Providing adequately for America’s families — by offering not just paid leave but financial assistance, preschool and after-care services, reasonable summer programming, and affordable college for all qualified students — would cost money. But it would greatly benefit America’s children and make it much easier for middle-class people to have the number of kids they say they want.
These challenges may seem complicated, but really they are not. The solution to America’s new urban-housing crisis is to build more houses so more people can move to in-demand cities. The solution to the illegal immigration crisis is to let more people come legally. Immigrants of virtually all stripes may look like a threat to some xenophobic Americans, but they make native-born Americans richer and fuel the kinds of innovation that can help the country grow. Both America’s vast rural hinterland and many of its aging northeastern and midwestern cities need an influx of people to prevent their current priceless assets (i.e., their real estate) from wasting away over the next generation. And America’s families need help from a more robust welfare state in order to be able to have and raise children with secure middle-class lifestyles.
For a long time, our politics has treated these patterns as parts of a puzzle that didn’t quite fit together. More immigration is good, but the cities immigrants tend to move to already don’t have enough housing. More housing is good, but that might only exacerbate rural depopulation. And if sane, humane child and family policy gives us more people, sane, humane immigration policy also gives us more people. If declining areas need more people but expensive areas also need more housing, then the solution to the puzzle is just that we should do it all.
Admittedly, it sounds a little loopy. But while some left-wing intellectuals might suggest that the end of American hegemony would be desirable, I’ve never heard an elected official from either party articulate that view. And America should aspire to be the greatest nation on earth. In part, that’s because our main rival is not something cuddly like a hypothetical version of the European Union or a nonhierarchical world order but the People’s Republic of China, a country that’s aggressively using its commercial clout to try to silence critics abroad, conducting egregious human-rights abuses against its Uighur minority, and cracking down on freedoms in Hong Kong.
The good news is that, for now, we still have more wealth and more industrial capacity because Americans, on average, are about four times as rich as Chinese people. But the gap in per capita gross domestic product is shrinking, and while we obviously can and should do what we can to make Americans richer, there are some profound reasons why it’s essentially impossible for a rich country like the U.S. to grow as rapidly as a still-poor country like China.
But one advantage the U.S. does have over China is that because it is a beacon of freedom to the world, rather than an increasingly dystopian oligarchy, there are more than 100 million people who would like to move here than America is prepared to allow in. We shouldn’t recklessly throw the borders open to just anyone who happens to show up, but we should recognize that openness to immigration is not just a nice favor the U.S. does for immigrants. That people want to move here is — and historically has been — a strategic asset, and we have a form of creedal civic nationalism that can accommodate a broad range of newcomers. We should be reasonably selective about whom we let in, but we should let in a lot of people.
And while reproductive freedom is crucially important, in practice Americans end up having fewer children than they say they would like to. As Lyman Stone from the Institute of Family Studies writes, “The gap between the number of children that women say they want to have (2.7) and the number of children they will probably actually have (1.8) has risen to the highest level in 40 years.” It’s no great mystery why. Having and raising children is an increasingly costly and difficult undertaking, as anyone who has, or is hoping to have, children could tell you. A 2018 poll for the New York Times asked people who have or expected to have fewer children than they considered ideal why they hadn’t had more. The No. 1 answer was that child care is too expensive. No. 3 was worries about the economy. No. 4 was “can’t afford more children,” and No. 5 was that the parents had waited to start having kids until they achieved financial security and then ran out of time. Climate concerns, frequently discussed in the press, do not show up as prominently in surveys and perhaps for good reason — greenhouse-gas emissions are probably too big a problem (a global rather than a national one, for starters) to tackle through population restriction. Instead, what is needed is a wholesale re-creation of our energy infrastructure to make sustainable power sufficiently abundant that population would become less relevant. (In the meantime, opening up borders is among the best ways to allow the world as a whole to adapt to warming.)
The idea of taking deliberate action to increase national fertility gives some progressives the willies, just as conservatives are these days in a perennial state of alarm about immigrants. But Americans, as a whole, simply do want to have more kids. Supporting that desire doesn’t require a campaign of The Handmaid’s Tale–type coercion or the arrival of a different, atavistic social structure. All we need to do is take seriously the claims to reproductive autonomy in both directions. People should be equipped with the tools they need to avoid pregnancy and childbirth but also with the kinds of social support that help in the raising of children.
That would include recognition at the policy level that though the standard K-12 public-school concept is invaluable, it’s also insanely limited. Children younger than 5 need to be taken care of, as do children of all ages during the summer months and after 3:30 p.m. Young people increasingly need more education than a high-school degree. Providing the public resources necessary to address all these gaps — rather than covering 50 percent of the days for 75 percent of childhood — would be very expensive. But not doing it pushes the costs onto parents and encourages people not to become parents. It also disproportionately burdens women, as study after study has shown. Nordic countries have successfully used extensive family support to build the most gender-egalitarian economies on earth, and while fertility rates there remain lower than in the U.S. (likely because desired fertility is lower in more-secular Europe), they are distinctly higher than in Germany or Southern Europe, where support is not as generous. In this way, while higher fertility rates would place a greater child-rearing burden on American women in particular, the right kind of social support could both ease that burden absolutely and in relative terms.
Lack of support for parents also disproportionately disadvantages the poor, as will surprise no one. And yet the scale of the disparity is nevertheless shocking: 21.1 percent of American children are living in poverty, compared with 11.3 percent of German children and just 9.3 percent of Swedish children, even though the U.S. is richer on average than either Germany or Sweden.
The current debate in the U.S. is so far off the mark in terms of really living up to society’s obligation to parents that the most serious plan for dealing with it comes not from any of Washington’s many mainstream think tanks but from the People’s Policy Project — essentially a one-man show run by Matt Bruenig, an eccentric socialist who, along with his wife, New York Times columnist Elizabeth Bruenig, is a parent of two young kids. They whimsically call their proposal the Family Fun Pack, and while it’s rigorous in its details, it’s also strikingly simple in concept. What if we, as a society, took all the things that we broadly agree all young families need and actually gave them to all of them?
On top of this, a universal childhood benefit of $300 a month for kids under 5, shrinking to $250 a month for kids 6 to 16, as congressional Democrats have proposed, could lift 4 million American children out of poverty and cut the “deep poverty” rate for kids in half. Elsewhere in the developed world, parental-leave policies vary quite a bit from place to place, but the absolute floor is about three months of leave with at least partial pay, with Germany, Japan, and Sweden offering more than a year in some cases. In the U.S., some companies offer some amount of paid or unpaid leave. But the government mandates zero weeks. This is not the right number of weeks. We don’t start school until age 5. That is an awfully big gap. It is also easy to fill with universal preschool.
It’s customary when trying to talk Americans into daunting political problems to quote JFK on the subject of why go to the moon. “We choose to go to the moon,” he said. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” It’s a great speech. That being said, it’s worth emphasizing that while 1 billion Americans may be impossible and absurd, there’s actually nothing hard about it.
Letting more hardworking and talented foreign-born people move here is not hard. On the contrary, it’s keeping people out that’s hard. Providing financial support so that Americans can have as many children as they say they’d like to is a big change, but there’s nothing particularly difficult about it. Letting builders make whatever kind of housing their customers want to buy is easy. Shifting economic activity to places where land and buildings are cheap is a little more difficult, but it’s hardly a voyage to the moon. Copying a traffic-management paradigm that Singapore implemented in the mid-’70s isn’t hard at all, nor is copying long-standing German commuter-rail practices. These easy things feel hard only because we’ve become accustomed to a political culture that can barely do anything at all.
Of course, tripling the population could also cause a number of problems. Traffic jams could get worse. Rent could go up. Water access would be stretched thinner. There’d be more pollution. These are, unfortunately, real concerns. And the exact details of how best to structure family-support programs, how best to pay for them, exactly which additional immigrants to let in, and how to improve our infrastructure and increase our housing stock are good subjects to argue about. But think of how much healthier our politics would be if there were really a debate about how to accomplish great things rather than a food fight over semi-imagined offenses to “real Americans” that serves as a mask for an endless procession of tax cuts for the rich. Why not make America greater than ever instead?
Whatever liberals’ misgivings about this national project, America should aspire to be the greatest nation on earth. That’s what Americans already think and rightly so. Rather than being paralyzed by racial panic, ecopessimism, or paranoia about the loss of parking spaces, we should try to think this stuff through calmly and systematically — choosing to emulate our forefathers and mothers, who managed to welcome millions of newcomers and ride oxcarts across the Rocky Mountains to build the greatest nation in human history, rather than throw up our hands at every moderately difficult logistical problem and whine that the country is full.
Excerpted from One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, by Matthew Yglesias. Published by Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Matthew Yglesias.
*This article appears in the August 31, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!