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Where are the babies? California sees slowest population growth since it started counting

Fresno County prepares for Census 2020

Jesus Martinez, a member of the California Complete Count Committee, talks about the importance of the 2020 U.S. Census and ensuring that everyone is counted. Video recorded on Tuesday, April 2, 2019, at Gaston Middle School in southwest Fresno, CA.
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Jesus Martinez, a member of the California Complete Count Committee, talks about the importance of the 2020 U.S. Census and ensuring that everyone is counted. Video recorded on Tuesday, April 2, 2019, at Gaston Middle School in southwest Fresno, CA.

California last year saw its slowest population growth in recorded history, according to a Department of Finance report published Wednesday.

Dwindling immigration, a significant decline in births and an aging baby boomer population contributed to the low annual population growth of 0.47 percent, said Tina Daley, chief of demographic research for the department.

Housing costs could be partly to blame for the trend.

Dowell Myers, professor of policy, planning and demography at USC, said young families are delaying having kids or outright moving because of the state’s expensive housing.

“There’s a migration outflow, and young people are the most mobile,” Myers said. “They face incredible pressure from 25 to 35. They’ve completed their education, are starting their jobs and are trying to start families. The pressure’s on to do everything in that short window of time. And by the way, they need housing.”

Myers said more and more couples rely on both partners being in the workforce so they can afford to buy a house and start a family. He also noted that students are being saddled with college debt, which prevents them from having enough money to put a down payment on a home. As a result, California couples are having kids later in life than previous generations.

All of these factors are contributing to a greater age imbalance across the state, with more baby boomers and fewer young and middle-aged adults.

“California’s top-heavy in that the ratio of people over 65 to prime working age (25 to 44) used to be pretty steady at about 21 seniors for every 100 working age people,” Myers said. “This was constant from 1970 to 2010, and then, in 2011, the first baby boomer turned 65. Since then, the ratio’s been rising. It’s going to go up from 21 to 38 in just 11 more years — that’s almost double.”

The Public Policy Institute of California wrote in a 2015 report that the state’s senior population will nearly double by 2030.

California has long been a net-exporter of residents to other states. Its population usually climbs because of births and foreign immigration.

The Department of Finance found there were 18,000 fewer babies born in California in 2018 than the previous year.

It also reported a shift in where immigrants come from.

Fewer Mexicans are coming to California, while more people from Asian countries are entering the state, according to Daley.

Daley said an overall decline in immigration could spell trouble ahead of the 2020 Census if other states are growing faster. Census numbers determine which states gain seats in Congress, and which states lose representatives.

“If it turns out California is dropping by more, that could result in less representation” in Congress, Daley said.

The demographic changes come on top of fears that a citizenship question that the Trump administration wants to put on the Census would cause fewer Californians to take the decennial survey by discouraging immigrants from participating.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on whether the administration can add the question to the Census. If it does so, California leaders worry the state could face an uphill battle getting an accurate count. The state and immigration advocacy groups would need to convince millions of residents that it’s safe for them to disclose their immigration status.

“It’s important to have a complete and accurate count of every Californian in the 2020 Census,” said a statement from Ditas Katague, director of California Complete Count — Census 2020. “We’re investing heavily in our Census outreach and engagement efforts in order to ensure every person statewide is counted.”

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