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California, the very emblem of growth, may be slowing down

Some projections show the state could even lose a member of Congress in the next census.

July 19, 2009|Cathleen Decker

For the 159 years of its statehood, California has been fueled by growth, with all its exorbitant promise and messy reality. Wildlands turned into cities, suburbs and farmlands at warp speed; the momentum seemed unstoppable even as the mind reeled at how, exactly, the state was going to handle it all.

So it seemed more than jarring last week when some political demographers suggested that after the 2010 census, for the first time, mighty California could lose a seat in the House of Representatives because other places are lapping us in the momentum department.

On that subject there is still much disagreement. Projections are based on differing sets of numbers, and the state's own figures suggest that California could still gain a seat. (State and federal estimates of California's population differ by more than 1 million people.)

Other demographers suggest that the state will remain at 53 seats, still by far the largest congressional delegation. But holding on is nothing like gaining seven to nine seats, as in recent decades.

The debate over which projection of population growth is most accurate might seem esoteric to drivers stuck on the 710 Freeway even during the summer vacation months. But the topic has real-life ramifications, because federal and state dollars flow on mathematical formulas tied to population. The size of the House delegation also has theoretical ramifications, though it is hard to get energized over the loss of a seat when the delegation manages to work together so infrequently.

Yet there is also the psychological effect.

Many Californians have grown tired of what growth represents; something "which used to be synonymous with sunshine and health and success now seems more malignant," as author and social commentator Don Waldie put it.

Still, for all the problems -- traffic, crowded schools, not enough water -- there may be a sense of loss as a place that once symbolized endless possibility finds itself giving up residents and representatives to Texas. And Arizona. And Nevada. And many other places.

Talk of losing a House seat seemed to signal a sudden shift. In truth, the shift has been a giant one, but none too sudden.

The California of yore, drawing people from far and wide, pretty much died more than a decade ago.

In the go-go years, according to demographer Mary Heim of the state Department of Finance, California grew at an annual clip of 2.5%. Now the rate is 1.1%. Although huge in real numbers -- "we still grow every year by the size of the state of Wyoming," Heim said -- it shows a clear diminution of the lure that once defined California.

The first change occurred in the early 1990s, when a recession slammed California's aerospace and manufacturing firms.

In the year ending in July 1990, 200,000 more people moved to California from other states than left here, a 25-year high, according to a state report. In the year ending in July 1994, as its economy reeled, the number of people leaving California exceeded arrivals by more than 250,000.

There was another uptick in California's popularity around 2000, Heim said, but growth has settled down since then.

"What we are seeing right now is fewer people coming into the state, and fewer going out," she said, "a slowing down" of the historic trends.

Growth is fueled by three measures: international immigration, migration from other states and what those in the trade call the "natural increase," the number of births minus the number of deaths. Once, California's numbers were bolstered by refugees from the Dust Bowl and military veterans who, having been stationed here, were drawn back by the mild weather.

Today, most of the growth is the result of births to people who already live here. Foreign immigration persists, but not at the levels it once did.

The reason for the change: jobs, or the lack of them.

"The vast majority of the people who move into and out of California domestically are doing so for jobs," said demographer Hans Johnson, a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California. "Jobs are really a huge magnet."

Because of that, he predicts that the state will lose more people -- or, rather, the increase in growth will be smaller -- because of the current recession.

But Heim disagrees, because in contrast to the state's last recession, the economy is almost as bad everywhere else as it is in California.

"There's less incentive to go because there might not be a job someplace else either, and moving is an expensive process," she said.

While demographers wait to see who is right on such questions, Californians ponder what the end of the state's long growth binge may mean for our collective state of mind.

Darry Sragow, a longtime political strategist, figures that most people haven't a clue how many members of Congress represent California and won't lose any sleep if there is one more or one less. But among the minority who do care about such things, it is "yet another symbol of the decline of the Republic of California," he said.

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