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Tuning In to the Cacophony of California's Population Crunch

September 10, 2000|JAMES RICCI

EVERY WORKDAY IN HER cluttered office 10 stories above Koreatown, Danielle Elliott looks squarely into the eyes of the beast most of us are loath to acknowledge.

It is 5 p.m., and down on Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue the creature is crying out for attention in the horn-bleat and brake-squeal of rush-hour traffic and the polyphony of people crowding the bus stops.

We avert our eyes. The monster is hard to look at because it is us--the 3.8 million of us who throng Los Angeles, the 35 million of us who populate California, the 52 million of us who will be trying to live in this state 25 years from now.

"The problem is, we have great powers of adjusting," Elliott says. "We used to sit in traffic for 30 minutes; now we sit for an hour and a half. It will creep up to two hours, and we will adjust to that, too. People always want to put it on something else. People look at the traffic and say, 'Too many cars.' People look at suburban sprawl and say, 'Too many developers.' Never that there are too many people."

Elliott is executive director of Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), which, alone among environmental organizations, focuses on the state's fundamental dilemma, the sheer number of us living here. It is an article of faith among CAPS adherents that California already has exceeded a sustainable number of people. Every social problem--poor schools, water and power shortages, snarled transportation, environmental degradation--springs from this.

Facing up to it, much less facing it down, invites scorn from many quarters. Once you focus on population abridgment, you must then turn to reproductive freedom, privacy and that great ship-sinker on the seas of California politics, immigration.

It was mostly over the immigration issue that the California contingent of Zero Population Growth broke off from the national organization in 1986 and reconstituted itself as CAPS. Zero Population Growth, the Californians thought, paid insufficient attention to the peculiar threat that immigration-fed population growth posed to the state's environment.

From U.S. Census Bureau and state population statistics, CAPS estimates that immigration and births to immigrant women accounted for 80% of the state's population increase of almost 5 million during the past decade. Immigrants have made California's fertility rate--2.4 children per woman--the highest in the United States, and on a par with Sri Lanka and Chile. California, arch-symbol of the unlimited West, is already about 40% more densely populated than Europe, where the population remains stable.

In Los Angeles, Elliott says, the effects have been pervasive. They are apparent in the oft-reported habitation of garages, the crowding of multiple families in single apartments and other circumventions of zoning laws. They are apparent, she says, in the perpetual crisis of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and in a shortfall of services to the elderly "as society increasingly has to concentrate its resources on people of working age, those who can contribute to sustaining it."

As long as the population issue goes unaddressed, she says, the demand for new housing units--already at more than 250,000 a year, according to state Treasurer Phil Angelides--can mean only more new subdivisions on more of the state's hillsides and deserts, longer commutes, more freeway congestion, more strain on the water supply.

CAPS proposes limiting the number of immigrants to that of emigrants. It would restrict immigrant family reunification to spouses and minor children and eliminate automatic citizenship for children born here to undocumented residents. It calls for a national employment-eligibility verification system, higher penalties for employers of unpapered aliens and stepped-up INS enforcement.

The organization has its finger on a sore spot for liberals, who tend to be pro-environment but also bighearted about immigration. CAPS takes pains to explain that it is not anti-immigrant (it remained neutral, for example, on Proposition 187).

"We're not concerned about who is coming here, but simply the number," says CAPS activist Ric Oberlink. "It is not a matter of condemning those people who have come here, but of looking at resources and asking how many people this land can support with what kind of lifestyle."

Much of CAPS' agenda concerns limits on reproduction. It calls for legislators to restrict tax exemptions to the first two children of any family and to require contraception coverage in all health plans. It proposes all-out efforts to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to expand clinics that provide birth-control services, including abortions.

This, of course, is not the sort of discordant music even those of us who aren't sexual moralists or individual-rights crusaders are eager to hear. It's more pleasant to tune in some easy-listening fare, courtesy of our politicians and developers, about "smart growth," California optimism and hope springing eternal. You know, keep those eyelids shut and a happy tune playing in our heads.

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James Ricci's e-mail address is james.ricci@latimes.com

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