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State population grows by less than 1%

Slowest rate in more than a decade is blamed primarily on high unemployment and foreclosures.

December 18, 2009|Teresa Watanabe

California's population grew less than 1% in the last year, the slowest growth rate in more than a decade and a vivid indicator of the continued toll that the deep recession has taken on the state.

Demographers said the population slowdown was largely attributable to two of the main effects of the recession: high unemployment and the skyrocketing number of home foreclosures.

Hans Johnson, associate director of the Public Policy Institute of California, noted that the state's jobless rate of 12.5% was higher than the national rate of 10.2% and that the gap was even more noticeable when California unemployment was compared with the rates in Texas and Washington, two traditional sources of migrants to California.

Dennis Myers, a state Finance Department economist, said the collapse of the housing market was also a major factor in the slowdown. San Bernardino County, saddled with one of the highest home foreclosure rates in the nation, lost 11,519 residents to out-migration in the last year. The county had been among the fastest-growing in the nation earlier in the decade, gaining 30,000 or more annually. Riverside County, also plagued with a foreclosure crisis, posted its slowest growth rate this decade.

Myers and Johnson said the state historically has grown faster than the nation because of immigration, which has also slowed. California attracted a net increase of 179,493 immigrants in the last year, the second-lowest number this decade.

"There's a sense that California has limited opportunities and a high cost of living," Johnson said.

The slow growth mimics the pattern seen in the last major recession, in the mid-1990s.

Experts said the effect on the state could be mixed.

Dowell Myers, a USC demographer, said the slowdown in growth provided a welcome respite that state policymakers should use to look ahead and plan for the future.

He and others said, for instance, that policymakers must step forward to provide new public investments in the state's crumbling infrastructure. A new study by a transportation research group called TRIP ranked Los Angeles roads as the roughest in the nation, with 92% of major roads in the metro areas in poor or mediocre condition. Deficiencies in roads and other transit systems cost state motorists $40 billion annually because of higher vehicle operating costs, traffic crashes and congestion, the study found.

"This is a wake-up call," Myers said. "We have a brief breathing spell, but we should not be lulled into complacency because growth will resume, and we have to get ready for it."

But others point out that with the population continuing to grow, albeit slowly, the state will be under more pressure for services at a time of declining revenue.

"This is bad news for governments, because it means there are more people to take care of who will need health services, police and fire services, educational services," said Jack Kyser, economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. "Given the very, very difficult financial situation of most governments . . . this is going to put more pressure on their budgets to stretch diminished resources."

Kyser added, however, that businesses would benefit from the continued population growth. Only 11 of 58 counties actually lost population, mostly those in the northeastern part of the state.

Across the state, natural increases rather than migration accounted for the largest source of population growth. Los Angeles County's population, for instance, grew slightly to 10.4 million from July 2008 to July 2009 by gaining 89,361 people through more births than deaths.

L.A. County lost a net 21,736 people through migration, as more people left than arrived for the fifth straight year. But fewer people are leaving than before; the departure of 81,158 residents in the last year was the lowest number since 2004.

Other Southern California counties also recorded slow rates of growth. Orange County's population grew to 3.1 million, San Bernardino County's to 2 million, Riverside County's to 2.1 million and Ventura County's to 841,000. The state's largest growth came in Imperial County, where both immigration and natural increases boosted the population by 2.2% to 181,772.

Overall, California's population hit 38,487,889, the state estimated. That amounted to a 0.93% growth rate, the lowest since the recession of the mid-1990s. The state's population estimates were based on birth and death counts, along with data on driver's licenses, housing, school enrollment and federal income taxes.

Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, Riverside and Santa Clara counties posted the highest population gains and account for more than half of the state's growth.

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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