Tuesday, January 2, 2001
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Posted on: Tuesday, January 2, 2001

Census: Slow growth major policy challenge

For years, planners and social scientists have dreamed about Hawaii achieving a stable population.

That is, a population that remained relatively unchanged in absolute numbers would make a myriad of planning decisions easier and more efficient.

As far back as 1972, UH sociology professor Earl Babbie was promoting his "Maximillion Report," which suggested that if we set a target of a million people for Hawaii, all manner of public policy decisions would fall into place.

We would know how much sewer capacity to build, how many classrooms and teachers we would need, how many policemen, traffic lights, miles of roadway ... you get the picture.

Well, the latest U.S. Census figures are out and be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

The report says that during the 1990s, Hawaii’s population growth slowed to a crawl. After three decades of double-digit population growth, the 1990s saw our population inching ahead at less than 10 percent.

By itself, that might not be bad. A 10 percent growth rate is manageable and within the power of planners to deal with. The struggles we had over growth control in the 1970s, when population jumped by 25 percent, is testimony to the planning nightmare that kind of increase provides.

In those boom years, there was talk of strict planning controls, land-use restrictions and even an attempt to challenge the U.S. Constitution by finding a way to limit in-migration to the Islands from elsewhere in the United States.

But the problem with today’s slower rate is that it is almost certainly not evenly distributed. As details of the Census emerge, it is a sure bet that the growth over the past 10 years has come largely from overseas immigration (with attendant social costs), the continuing inflow of retirees and some increase in births.

But the productive middle, those who have achieved their education and are ready to contribute, have had to move out. Our slow economy ensured that by providing a shortage of jobs and opportunities.

The challenge for policy-makers now is to use this decade-long breather as a chance to catch up, regroup and set in place the tools for sustainable, productive growth.

We don’t need to return to the double-digit growth of the boom years (in fact, it is unlikely that our land base and environment could sustain much more of that). Slower growth is desirable, but it should be quality slow growth, where our best and brightest remain at home to contribute to an ever-more-prosperous and healthy state.

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