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FORUM: Fastest Growing Region in State

By Mark Baldassare, senior fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Sacramento Bee on April 15, 2001

The recently released 200 Census confirms what many Central Valley watchers have been saying all along: The Central Valley's population is increasing at a torrid pace, surpassing every other major region of the state with its impressive rate of growth.

But behind the predictable trends, there was also a big surprise: Major increases in the Central Valley's population were not driven by Bay Area workers commuting to new housing developments. Instead, they are the result of a dramatic surge in the region's Latino population. Over the years, this trend will dramatically alter the state's and the region's social and political landscape.

California grew in the 1990's by 1.4 million residents to a population of 33.9 million, according to the 2000 Census. This increase was driven in large part by growth in the state's interior, including the Central Valley alone.

For the first time since the Gold Rush, more than half of Californians lived outside the Bay Area a nd Los Angeles. The 18-country Central Valley - stretching from Bakersfield to Redding - gained more people than either Los Angeles or the Bay Area, adding nearly one million residents. The Valley's 20 percent growth rate topped even the burgeoning Orange County-San Diego-Inland Empire region. In the process, the Central Valley reached a population of 5.6 million residents.

However, the 2000 Census numbers that have grabbed the most headlines recently have had to do with California's official designation as the nation's first large "majority-minority" state, meaning that no racial or ethnic group comprises more than half of the population. Whites now make up 47 percent of the population - a 10 point drop in one decade. The decline is the result of an aging population, slowing birth rate and out of state exodus. Most of the growth in California in the past decade can be traced to Latino births; nearly half of the state's children are Latino.

The trends in Central Valley are no different. The Latino population in the Central Valley now stands at 1.7 million, an increase of over 50 percent in the 1990's. In fact, over two thirds of the Central Valley's growth in the past decade stems from the addition of 600,000 new Latino residents. Mirroring state trends, the Valley's white population did not grow even as white Bay Area workers moved to the region in search of affordable housing.

A decade ago, the region was two-thirds white, 22 percent Latino, 6 percent Asian and 5 percent black. In 2000, the Central Valley was 54 percent white, 30 percent Latino, 6 percent Asian and 5 percent black. Barring a major change in the trend, the Central Valley will not have a white majority when the next census is taken in 2010.

If the Central Valley gains new political clout in the state from its population growth - it is poised to get more federal and state representatives after legislative redistricting - it owes its rising political fortunes to a growing Latino presence. Compared with Los Angeles, the Central Valley today is hardly a bastion of Latino political power; there are no Latino House members from the Central Valley, one Latino in the state Senate and two Latinos in Assembly seats. But the growing size and influence of the Latino vote could be a major force in reshaping state and regional politics.

What do we know about the growing population of Latinos living in the Central Valley? Eight in 10 reside in the San Joaquin Valley, where Latinos now make up 40 percent of the population. However, Latino numbers are sizable in the Sacramento metro and North Valley regions as well, where Latinos now account for about one in six residents. A Central Valley survey by the Public Policy Institute of California last February found a relatively youth oriented group: Two thirds of Latino households have children at home, while two thirds of whites have no children living with them.

So far, Central Valley residents have taken the regions' racial and ethnic transition in stride. In the contrast to the civil disturbances in Los Angeles, there have been no large-scale incidents to date that point to deep-seated racial and ethnic conflict. In a statewide survey the institute took last year, most Central Valley residents say they aware that the racial and ethnic makeup of their region was changing, but most of them reported that groups in their area were getting along. Moreover, no one cited racial and ethnic tensions as the top issue in this year's Central Valley survey.

Still, history warns us that racial and ethnic harmony can be fleeing, unless it is based on a solid foundation of political equality and economic well-being. And other demographic trends in the Central Valley suggest that the current spirit of goodwill may be resting on a fragile base.

Indeed, a closer look at our recent survey reveals a troubling pattern of inequality. Most notably, the Central Valley's increasing racial and ethnic diversity is not evident in indicators of economic privilege and political influence. At a time of relative economic prosperity, many Latinos have been left behind.

In our February survey, Latinos were most likely to say that jobs are the single biggest problem facing the Central Valley today, while whites were most likely to focus their concerns on growth issues and the electricity crisis. Indeed nearly half of Latinos said that the lack of opportunities for well-paying jobs is a big problem.

There is also a wide gap in the economic and living conditions of Latinos and whites in the Central Valley today. Three-fourths of Latinos have no college training and live in households earning under $40,000 a year, while two thirds of whites have at least some college education and more than half are in households earning over $40,000 a year. Sixty percent of Latinos rent their homes, while tow thirds of whites are homeowners. Two thirds of Latinos have never been on the Internet, while two thirds of whites go online to check their email and visit Web sites.

Not surprisingly, since a good income and education are usually preconditions of an active political life, nearly half of Latinos are not registered to vote, while 84 percent of whites are voters. Overall, seventy-seven percent of the registered voters are whites. While this trend may change as more Latinos reach voting age and others gain citizenship status, it still suggests that Latino political power lags well behind Latino numbers.

In the future, however, a growing Latino population is likely to tilt the politics of the Central Valley to the left. The Central Valley is a "swing area" where the two parties are roughly equal in voter registration and the number of state and federal legislative seats they hold. Among whites, Republicans outnumber Democrats by a 12-point margin, and this margin has helped Republicans by a 35-point margin, which has provided an important boost for Democrats.

Unfortunately for the GOP, most new voters are Latinos. Unless the Republicans can reverse current trends, a growing Latino vote could tip the balance of power to the Democrats in any close legislative races.

Given the current trends of growth and change, perhaps it is no wonder that the 2001 Central Valley survey found that residents are on edge about their region's future. Three in four expect the Central Valley population to grow rapidly between now and 2010, and an equal number say that the quality of the natural environment will deteriorate over the next 10 years.

But there are other worries besides the loss of open space: Two in three also expect the gap between rich and poor in the region to grow. As a result of the concerns, only one in six expect that the Central Valley will be a better place to live a decade from now that it is today.

As the Central Valley seeks to chart a better course for its future, regional planning efforts will need to take a form that is distinct from all other regions. Local governments, and the private and nonprofit sectors, must find ways to manage growth and development more effectively, and at the same time help a large group of new residents become full participants in higher education, the new economy workplace and political institutions. Progress for the entire region depends on achieving these interrelated goals. After all, current trends are expected to persist at least through mid-century, meaning that Latino growth will continue to be an integral part of the region's future.


California Counts: A State of Diversity: Demographic Trends in California's Regions

Statewide Survey - March 2001 - Central Valley

Statewide Survey - April 2002 - Central Valley