Capitol Alert

Despite tumbling birthrate, California population climbs to 38.5 million

Dr. William Gilbert, the regional medical director of Sutter Women’s Services, is shown in 2007 with four babies of hundreds that are born every month at the hospital.
Dr. William Gilbert, the regional medical director of Sutter Women’s Services, is shown in 2007 with four babies of hundreds that are born every month at the hospital. Sacramento Bee file

California’s population increased at the fastest clip since before the economic downturn in the year ending July 1, new state figures show, even as the state’s birthrate declined to levels not seen since the depths of the Great Depression.

California’s 38.5 million people resulted from a nearly 0.9 percent growth rate – the highest since 2003-04, according to Thursday’s report by the state Department of Finance. Experts said the economic recovery reduced the number of residents leaving for other parts of the United States and helped boost the Golden State’s population.

But while the state added some 335,000 residents, mostly because more people were born than died, the state’s birthrate stood at 12.9 per 1,000 residents in July, the lowest since 1934, when more than one-fifth of Americans were out of work.

Lingering post-recession unease could be be part of the reason for the low birthrate, experts said, but a more concrete cause is a sharp drop in the rate of teen pregnancies. The number of young adults ages 20 to 24 having children also continues to decline.

“We always assumed it was downward trending,” Walter Schwarm, a Department of Finance demographer, said of teen birthrates. “But in the last couple of years, the trend markedly deepened.”

The number of births from teens ages 15 to 19 dropped from about 31 per 1,000 in 2010 to about 22 per 1,000 in 2013, he said, adding that there are a mix of possible reasons: The federal health care law included more access to contraception, education programs to discourage teenage sex might be working, and teenage parenthood also may face more of a cultural stigma now.

Falling birthrates have meant trouble in some countries. In Russia, Japan and elsewhere, live births have trailed deaths, portending future shortages of workers and taxpayers. In California, though, long-range projections show that live births will continue to exceed deaths, even as members of the post-war baby-boom generation begin to die in greater numbers.

And Schwarm said there are signs that birthrates have increased among people in their late 20s and older in the first months of 2014. “The rest of the age groups have picked up the pace a little bit because they see the fact that economic conditions are improving,” he said.

After surging across much of the state in the 1990s and early in the last decade, California’s population growth slowed as the recession took hold. The state population grew by just 0.6 percent in 2009, as tens of thousands of residents left for other states.

Thursday’s report marked the first time in six years that the state had added more than 300,000 residents. The number of people leaving California for other states, meanwhile, dropped to its lowest level since 2003.

“It’s an indication that things are picking up a bit,” John Malson, research manager at the state Department of Finance, said of the state’s economy.

The state’s fastest-growing county was San Benito, where the population increased by 1.48 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, rural Modoc County shrank by 0.72 percent. In the Sacramento area, Placer County grew by 1.37 percent, Sacramento County by 1.04 percent, El Dorado County by 0.55 percent and Yolo County by 0.52 percent.

In addition, population growth rates in many inland counties, which sagged during the recession, once again exceeded those of most coastal counties as people looked for cheaper housing.

“We’re starting to see inland areas starting to grow faster than coastal areas,” said Hans Johnson, a demographer at the Public Policy Institute of California. “It is a sign that the state is continuing to recover and come out of the recession.”

California’s economy is now in its sixth year of climbing back from the recession, according to the latest projections from the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal analyst.

The state’s October unemployment rate was 7.3 percent, unchanged from September, but businesses added 41,500 jobs. In the past year, the state has gained 319,500 jobs, second only to Texas. Demand for goods and services is strong, the Legislative Analyst’s Office reported, and home prices are up. The construction industry should continue to rebound and pull more homebuilding permits, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Call Jim Miller, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5521. Follow him on Twitter @jimmiller2.