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Demographic Decline in Atlantic Canada: It's the Economy, Stupid

Atlantic Canada is reportedly dying. I'll spend this week explaining why that isn't the case.
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The longest covered bridge in the world, in Hartland, New Brunswick. (Photo: Scott Davis/Wikimedia Commons)

The longest covered bridge in the world, in Hartland, New Brunswick. (Photo: Scott Davis/Wikimedia Commons)

The Rust Belt is dying. Portland, Oregon, is dying. When I wrote that post, Portlandia sported a declining labor force. Pittsburgh, a place half in population of what it once was, sported a historic high in labor force. Portland or Pittsburgh, which city was really dying?

I insisted that Portland, not Pittsburgh, was dying. Champion your favorite metric and make your case. What say you?

In Portland's favor, population growth suggests vitality. In Pittsburgh's favor, per capita income suggests prosperity. For the old school of economic development, Portland is a winner. For the new school of economic development, Pittsburgh is a winner.

In the old-school scheme of thinking, Atlantic Canada is a loser. David Campbell is an economic development expert I respect. Above all else, he argues for population growth:

Why does it matter? There are several reasons why at least moderate population growth should be a main objective of government.

First, we are about to hit a demographic wall. New Brunswick’s population aged 55+ has ballooned since 1999 – rising nearly 50 per cent. Without an infusion of younger workers in the near future, the province’s economic potential will be stymied.

Second, we need population growth to build up our tax base. The majority of economic activity in New Brunswick comes from consumer spending. If we have no growth in consumers it is hard to see how we can expect even a moderate increase in the tax revenues we need to pay for public services.

Third, New Brunswick needs more population to make better use of its infrastructure. People that visit New Brunswick are amazed at the amount of four lane highways, airports, universities and hospitals. For a population of 750,000 we have more than our share of infrastructure. We can either plan to scale it back through a long period of decline or we can make better use of it by boosting the population around the province.

Campbell is wrong that population growth is an economic imperative for New Brunswick and the rest of Atlantic Canada. Over the next few days, I will explain what these provinces should do.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.