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The Amazing, Changing California Population

By Hans Johnson, associate research director, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the July 2007 edition of Western City Magazine

Any number of superlatives could be used to describe California's astounding growth. The state's population, which has doubled since 1965, consists of more than 37 million people today. That growth sets California apart from the rest of the developed world. During the 20th century, California grew at a faster rate than any other large developed region on earth. The state's population now exceeds that of all but 32 countries. To put it another way, California's population is larger by several million than all of Canada's, and within the next 10 years it is likely to surpass that of Spain.

The diversity of the state's population growth has been equally remarkable. As recently as 1970, four of every five Californians were non-Hispanic Caucasians, but by 2000, no racial or ethnic group constituted a majority of the state's population. Most of the growth of the past few decades has occurred among Asian and Latino populations. In addition, today about one in four Californians was born in another country. California is home to immigrants from more than 60 different countries, arguably making the state's population the most diverse in the entire world.

Examining the Numbers

How much the state will continue to grow is uncertain. Gains will be sizable, but most likely lower than in the past. Migration from the rest of the United States -- once an important source of population growth -- no longer contributes to California's growth. During the 1990s, about 2 million more people moved from California to other states than came from other states to California. Much of the exodus occurred in the early part of the decade and was related to the state's severe economic recession. But losses due to domestic migration were more than offset by gains from foreign immigration and natural increase (excess of births over deaths), both of which kept the state's population growing.

While moves out of California to other states have slowed substantially during this decade, the latest estimates suggest that the state continues to lose people to the rest of the country. It seems that high housing costs have led Californians to leave -- either cashing in on their equity and/or looking for more affordable housing -- and prevented more residents of other states from moving here. Still, foreign immigration to California remains strong, and natural increase continues to add large numbers to the state's population each year. Projections by the state Department of Finance suggest that California will grow by almost 5 million people during the next decade -- less than the 6 million added during the 1980s but more than the 4 million added during the 1990s. By 2040, the state's population could exceed 50 million.

Latinos, Asians and Seniors On the Rise

One certainty is that population growth among Latinos and Asians will continue to be strong. Latinos will become the single largest racial/ethnic group in California within the next 10 years and, around 2040, will constitute a majority of the population, according to the Department of Finance, California's Increasing Diversity). Already today, Latinos are the single largest racial/ethnic group among Californians under 35 years old, and almost half of all births in California are to Latina mothers.

Another certainty is the continued aging of the California population. As the very large Baby Boomer population (those born between 1945 and 1964) begins to reach retirement age in 2011, the number of senior citizens in California will start rising dramatically. Between 2000 and 2020, the number of seniors in California is expected to double. By 2030, about one in every five Californians will be older than 65.

At the other end of the age spectrum, California's population of children is not expected to change very much over the next 10 years. As the relatively small "baby bust" generation has reached childbearing age, the number of births in California has declined. Declines in fertility rates have also played a role, especially for Latinas; second-generation Latinas have much smaller families than their first-generation parents. As a result, public school enrollment is projected to increase by only 2 percent over the next 10 years, a dramatic slowdown from the 23 percent increase of the 1990s.

Inland Areas Are Fastest Growing

What about growth in California's far flung regions in the interior? Their established growth patterns seem fairly well set. Inland areas have experienced faster growth rates than coastal areas for more than 30 years, and their share of the state's population has grown. The Inland Empire, San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento metropolitan area are projected to continue experiencing the fastest growth rates in the state. Especially striking is the Inland Empire, which has been one of the fastest growing metro areas in the United States for decades and now has a larger population than Cleveland, San Diego, St. Louis or Denver. Projections suggest that this region could grow from 4 million people in 2006 to almost 6 million by 2030.

Northern California has the makings of its own Inland Empire as population growth spills over from the San Francisco Bay Area into the northern San Joaquin Valley. During the past decade, growth rates there have rivaled those of the Inland Empire.

Despite much faster growth in inland areas, the vast majority of Californians still lives in coastal or bayside counties, and the state Department of Finance projects that by 2040, more than 60 percent of residents will continue to do so.

Immigration and Its Implications

All of these population projections assume that large numbers of foreign immigrants will continue to arrive in California. While the state's popularity as a destination weakened in the 1990s, California is still the leading destination for immigrants to the United States. Future flows will largely be determined by federal immigration policy. Depending on its design, a new guest worker program could lead to substantially larger flows than currently projected. Regardless, the number of second-generation immigrants in California will continue to grow and is likely to make up an increasing share of the state's population.

What This Means for Policy-Makers

Population growth has critical implications. Almost every area of public policy is directly affected - from caseloads for social services to transportation infrastructure to environmental protection. Some population-based issues will be shared by almost every state in the nation; the aging baby boomers, for instance, are a national phenomenon, and all states will be challenged to continue to provide services, including health care, for growing numbers of senior citizens.

Other issues, however, are unique to California. Rapid population growth in inland regions raises specific concerns about the need to plan for and provide infrastructure while protecting agricultural land and the environment. The San Joaquin Valley already has one of the worst air pollution problems in the nation - second only to the Inland Empire - and continues to experience huge population growth. Also, inland regions are among the poorest areas of the state, with high poverty rates and low levels of education. The San Joaquin Valley has the highest poverty rates of any region in California, with high unemployment rates even during the best of times. Providing social services, educational opportunities and economic development to a large and growing population in these places will likely need to be more than just a local issue.

And finally, there is immigration. To a large extent, California's future is going to be determined by the success of the children and grandchildren of today's immigrants. Nearly half of California's population is now made up of immigrants and their second-generation descendants. The key to their -- and the state's -- economic prosperity is educational progress. While many immigrants come to California with high levels of education, many more do not. In this context, perhaps the single most important issue facing the state is ensuring that educational progress flourishes from one immigrant generation to the next. California's future economy depends on having a highly skilled work force. And it's a near demographic certainty that much of that work force will be the children of today's immigrants.


California 2025: Taking on the Future

Just the Facts: California's Population

Just the Facts: Immigrants in California