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Guest Post: Making the Most of a Population Slowdown

BY Karthick Ramakrishnan
Karthick Ramakrishnan
Karthick Ramakrishnan is associate professor of political science at the Univers
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| Oct 26, 2012

By Karthick Ramakrishnan, University of California, Riverside

As part of our 75th anniversary, Irvine commissioned a series of posts from California experts and thought leaders who discuss the state’s most important trends and how we might collectively respond to them. This is one of those posts and we invite you to check back throughout the fall to read more of these entries and share your reactions below.

California, long viewed as a destination for newcomers from other countries and elsewhere in the United States, is increasingly a state of homegrown residents. It is also a state whose population growth has slowed considerably from the torrid pace of much of the 20th Century. Whether this bodes well or ill for the Golden State remains an open question, one that depends critically on whether economic and social investments will be sufficient to sustain prosperity and wellbeing.

In 2000, California crossed a pivotal threshold, with just over half of the state’s residents born in the Golden State and the remainder born elsewhere in the United States or abroad. Just ten years prior, residents born out of state, including the foreign born, had outnumbered native-born Californians by a ratio of 54 percent to 46 percent. By 2010, that ratio would be reversed, with 46 percent of Californians born outside the Golden State and 54 percent born within.

The 2000 Census also signaled a significant slowdown in the growth of California’s population. While during the 20th Century, California had experienced average population growth of about 40 percent per decade, the growth rate slowed to only 11 percent between 2000 and 2010, and is expected to remain at the 10 percent level for much of the 21st Century, according to a study at the University of Southern California, with relatively low fertility rates and new international migration.

There may be several advantages to these changing population dynamics in California. Having a more settled immigrant population may mean that the foreign born will get more involved in state and local governance, whether it be through civic voluntarism or political participation. Relatively low fertility rates may also mean more generous spending on education per capita. And slower population growth will likely mean less strain on natural resources and less demand for energy.

However, none of these futures can be taken for granted. For example, past research has shown that, even when immigrants get involved in civic life, their contributions often remain invisible to local civic leadership. This is especially true in newer destinations for immigrant residents, including many parts of inland Southern California. And, while Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders already account for about one in 7 residents, and are expected to grow to about 20 percent of the state’s residents by mid-century, their integration into state and local politics remains far from complete. In order for immigrant integration to serve its full civic potential, we need more explicit and robust outreach efforts by community leaders and local governments.

Next, while relatively low fertility rates may signal fewer crowded classrooms and less strain on the system of higher education in California, this optimistic future depends on whether the state maintains its investments in K-12, vocational and higher education instead of downsizing its commitment to educating the future workforce of California. Already, the University of California system is steadily increasing its share of out-of-state students, as the state pays a progressively smaller share of the cost of higher education. And the proportion of Latinos completing high school and entering college remains much lower than the statewide average. An aging California population and a slower-growing workforce thus makes it even more imperative for the state to invest in an educational system that ensures a highly-educated workforce, one that is at least as well trained as the baby boom generation that has entered retirement age.

These are just two examples of how California needs to prepare for its anticipated slowdown in population growth and what it might mean for the future prosperity of the state’s residents. Making investments in education, environmental protection and immigrant integration will mean all the difference, between a California that runs the risk of economic and civic stagnation, and one that continues to serve as a model for economic and social vitality.

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Karthick Ramakrishnan is associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside and director of the National Asian American Survey.

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