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Downturn Won't Ease Population Pressure

By Mark Baldassare, president, CEO, and survey director, and Hans Johnson, associate director of research and senior fellow, Public Policy Institute of California

This opinion article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 15, 2009

Focused on their immediate economic problems, Californians seem to be slipping into a state of denial about the future. Despite projections that the state's population will grow by 10 million in the next 20 years, many Californians no longer believe they live in a dynamic, growing state. This disconnect between residents' attitudes and our demographic destiny raises troubling issues about our resolve to adequately plan for and invest in the future.

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The money from the federal stimulus package now making its way to the state could be put to use as a hefty down payment on the schools, roads, water and public works projects necessary to ensure a decent quality of life for future generations, so it's especially important that Californians keep the bigger picture in view.

For years, most residents have believed that they live in a fast-growing region and that this rapid growth would continue. But now, for the first time in the 11-year history of a survey done by the Public Policy Institute of California, many see things differently. Most residents are currently expecting slow growth, no growth or even a population decrease.

The proportion of Californians saying that population growth in their region is "not a problem" jumped from 37 percent in December 2005 to 50 percent today.

An even more dramatic change has taken place in the proportion of residents expecting rapid population growth in the future - a decline from 65 percent in June 2004 to only 41 percent today.

Among Bay Area respondents, just 16 percent said that population growth was "a big problem" in their region, and only 31 percent said they expected rapid population growth in their region over the next 20 years.

Given these expectations, Californians could be in for a big surprise, if history is any guide. California's population has continued on its upward trajectory even after dramatic economic downturns, including the Great Depression and the dot-com bust. Today's recession, in its depth and severity, is often compared to the early 1980s - and in that decade, the state's population grew by about 6 million. From 1990 to 2000, another period that started with a serious economic downturn, the state ended up adding about 5 million people.

What about the future? Over the next 20 years, California's population is estimated to increase from 39 million to 49 million. For the time being, the state's leading demographers are holding to those long-term projections even in the midst of a collapsing housing market and dwindling job prospects for Californians.

The reasons? First and foremost, the biggest factor in the state's population increase has been and will continue to be a large number of births to residents, driven by the fact that California has a relatively young population compared with the rest of the nation.

Also, with immigration the next biggest growth factor, California is still a relatively safe haven in these tumultuous times. Last, with shrinking home equities and 401(k)s, the Baby Boomers may delay their plans to cash in and leave the state.

Indeed, when residents in the latest Public Policy Institute of California survey are confronted with the prospects of adding 10 million people in the next 20 years, the majority say this will be "a bad thing" for themselves and their family. The consequences of the next, inevitable round of population increase in California are in our hands today.

The danger inherent in this moment is that Californians may lose sight of the state's future, focusing instead on budget deficits and the shrinking economy.

It will be up to state leaders, and voters facing choices at the ballot box, to find the proper balance between attention to short-term problems and making headway in long-term planning. This may be a unique opportunity to reboot the economy and rebuild the state for the 21st century.

Related Publications

PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and Population Issues

California's Future Population

Related Policy Areas

Political Participation

Other Work By

Mark Baldassare
Hans Johnson