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Population Numbers Set Political Stage

By Dan Walters
The Sacramento Bee,Tuesday, February 2, 2003

If you want to inform yourself about the single most important factor influencing California's present and future, enter on the Internet and look at the state's newest compilation of population data.

The state Department of Finance's demographers have calculated that as of last July, California's population stood at 35.3 million, a yearly gain of 603,000 or 1.74 percent, which translates into 6 million a decade, roughly the equivalent of Massachusetts' entire population. The numbers and the underlying components typify what the state has experienced over the past two decades and what it's likely to see in the next two.

The 2001-02 growth consisted of 528,151 births - just over one a minute - offset by 232,790 deaths, but augmented by 307,640 immigrants, at least a third of them undocumented.

What the report doesn't reveal is that the vast majority of those 528,151 babies were born to immigrant mothers. In fact, if California had no foreign immigration, it would have almost no population growth, since births to non-immigrant mothers and deaths would balance each other out.

Delving more deeply into the new population report, one finds confirmation that the state's population growth, about 1,650 persons each day, is not occurring evenly in the state. Its coastal metropolitan areas are gaining the most new bodies - Los Angeles County's growth was 170,600 during the year - but its inland regions are growing the fastest. The 10 fastest-growing counties during the 12-month period were all east of the Coastal Range of mountains, topped by Riverside at 3.92 percent.

And there it is, California's immediate past, its present and its foreseeable future - more people, more cultural diversity and more impacts on every facet of California life. A few effects:

  • California needs roughly a quarter-million jobs a year to keep pace with growth of the labor force. If we don't reach that number, unemployment will increase.
  • It also needs 200,000 housing units a year, somewhat more than public agencies and private developers are now producing, with the greatest gap in low-and moderate-income housing.
  • Each day, another 600 motor vehicles will crowd onto a street and highway system whose capacity has scarcely changed in the last 20 years.
  • Public schools must find space and teachers for another 50,000 or so students each year, translating into 1,700 classrooms, and cope with the diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds of the new students.
  • The immigration-birth nexus, when coupled with changes in the economy, bolsters the evolution of a two-tier society with a rapidly expanding population of working poor families.

The political conflicts that derive from these powerful demographic currents are obvious, particularly those involving job development, housing, transportation access, education, water and health care.

They lie, for instance, at the heart of the state's budget crisis. Beyond the budget, the ongoing local and regional conflicts over land use - particularly the conversion of agricultural fields to homes, offices and retail developments - and water exist only because the state must find living and working space for those 600,000 additional bodies each year.

It's a pretty daunting picture.