Dan Walters

California’s slowing population growth has many impacts – positive and negative

Senior citizens line up for free groceries on March 16, 2016, at the Hart Senior Center, where once a month, about 45 seniors bring wheeled carts to fill up with potatoes, rice, fresh fruits and vegetables and other staples, mostly provided by the Sacramento Food Bank. California will see a sharp increase in its elderly population as the baby boom generation retires from the work force.
Senior citizens line up for free groceries on March 16, 2016, at the Hart Senior Center, where once a month, about 45 seniors bring wheeled carts to fill up with potatoes, rice, fresh fruits and vegetables and other staples, mostly provided by the Sacramento Food Bank. California will see a sharp increase in its elderly population as the baby boom generation retires from the work force. lsterling@sacbee.com

A decade ago, California’s demographers and those in the federal Census Bureau were politely arguing.

A half-decade after the 2000 census, state officials were calculating that California had roughly a million more residents than the Census Bureau was estimating.

The 2010 census settled it in favor of the feds and since then, the two have been in sync.

Both released new numbers last month. The state Department of Finance pegged California’s population at 39.4 million as of July 1, while the Census Bureau put it at 39.3 million, a 2-million-person gain from 2010.

That sounds big, but in fact, it indicates that California’s population growth is continuing to slow and that we could see a no-growth situation in future decades.

High foreign immigration and a new baby boom generated a nearly 25 percent gain in California’s population between 1980 and 1990, but growth slowed markedly during the 1990s, principally due to a recession that sparked an exodus to other states.

Slowing immigration and lower birthrates continued to reduce growth in the new century’s first decade and in this one as well – from 2 percent a year in the 1980s to about one-third that rate today.

Foreign immigration has dropped sharply, and we now lose more people to other states than we gain, with Texas the No. 1 destination for ex-Californians.

Most interestingly, the state’s birthrate has declined to 12.42 babies per 1,000 population, down more than a percentage point from 2010 and the lowest in California history.

Meanwhile, the aging of the baby boom generation – the oldest boomers are now 70 – means an increase in the state’s death rate to 6.71 per 1,000.

Births minus deaths, dubbed “natural increase,” still account for more than two-thirds of California’s population growth, but as the gap narrows, it slows growth.

California’s current growth rate, about 0.7 percent a year, is scarcely a third of the nation’s fastest-growing state, Utah, which posted a 2.03 percent gain between 2015 and 2016. It’s also less than half of the rate in rival Texas.

The state’s slowing growth has all sorts of impacts, positive and negative.

For one thing, it moderates demands for some public services. The state’s public schools are seeing no growth in their overall student population, and some districts are seeing declines.

It prevents California’s severe housing shortage from being even worse. Our current growth, about 300,000 persons a year, generates a need for about 100,000 new housing units, and we’re falling well short. Were we growing at a 1980s clip, we’d need three times as many new housing units.

An aging population creates new demands for services for the elderly, including health care and specialized housing and, of course, the money to pay for them. But slow growth also lowers the retail economy and potentially creates labor shortages as baby boomers retire in droves.

Finally, it means that California is unlikely to see increases in its congressional delegation and therefore in its presidential electoral votes.

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