Demographic Policy Lessons for North Dakota

It is a constant refrain on my part. Population is the key. This is true if I am in class teaching undergraduate or graduate students, on the radio talking with JT or the public, or in  casual conversation with family or friends. Population is a key to growth, and I think most people get it. The problem is arriving at a policy that encourages sustainable population growth. North Dakota has more jobs than unemployed, and has had the problem for a long time, indicating an issue with attracting in-migration in needed numbers. Neither have we seen a demographic change in births or mortality sufficient to overcome these problems.

I am not necessarily advocating these as policy ideas exactly for North Dakota. Typically, policy ideas are not easily transferred to different locations. They do demonstrate the extent of the creativity needed to make an impact on demographic measures. The two stories out of the Economist really show the extent to which Japanese cities made efforts to address the nation’s demographic problems at a local level.

This first one may have specific relevance for North Dakota some similarities to the Main Street Initiative and healthy city push from Governor Burgum. The effort to centralize services and population in the same geographic area of the cities allows for significant economies and the associated positive budget impacts.

My takeaway from the article is this: success in these areas requires thinking differently and taking risks. This means policy, from beginning to end, needs to think differently. Trying to repackage the same ways of doing things, in some new configuration or with slightly different funding models, will not cut it. It is also not clear to me whether the populations interested in taking on risks of this type.

The other demographics issue is the fertility rate. Think of this as generating home grown population growth rather than relying on importing the population. Ignore the financial incentives given to have children, which I am pretty sure would be non-starters here, and focus on childcare provision. Easy access to affordable childcare is an enormous incentive to live somewhere for many people, especially dual career families.

Why is childcare difficult to find? There are lots of reasons, but the regulatory regime for childcare is not light certainly. However, if the regulatory regime is lesser and there is still a lack of availability, we need to start considering market failures as an option. Market failure requires government intervention to solve. This could be reducing regulations, provision of the good or service by government, or providing incentives for the private market to provide the good or service.

With North Dakota experiencing problems attracting workers in general, making access to childcare easier could be a be big boost to worker retention and attraction and could add percentage points to economic growth. While not all policies mentioned will work in North Dakota we really owe it to ourselves and the state to discuss creative alternatives and solutions like these and give them a more complete vetting.

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