In last week's national news, several mainstream media stories reviewed a new and optimistic University of Southern California report about the Golden State's slowing population growth.
According to the USC School of Public Policy, the state's growth has slowed to about 1 percent per annum, a much lower rate than in recent years, especially in the 1980s. During the 1980s, California's population exploded by 26 percent, or 6 million residents. One of the leading reasons for the current decline is, according to the study's authors, a sharp drop in migration — mostly from Mexico.
The report, titled "Generational Projections of the California Population by Nativity and Year of Immigrant Arrival," pointed out the benefits in slower growth, but took an overly positive view of what the new and slightly smaller California will look like. And the report ignored the crucial fact that despite slower growth, California, now at 37.8 million residents, will have 44 million people by 2028. Even if California is fortunate enough to have a 1 percent per annum growth rate for a prolonged period, that would still mean an unsustainable population doubling within about 70 years.
Historically, migratory declines are linked to a depressed U.S. economy. California, more than any other state, has been ravaged by relentlessly high unemployment, steep budget deficits and a catastrophic real estate market. As conditions gradually improve, immigration will undoubtedly return to its previous high levels.
Had the USC professors authored a more comprehensive analysis, they would have included a compare-and-contrast study. Compare California in the mid-1960s, when the population stood at 15 million, to the overcrowded California five decades later. Half a century ago, California, with its best-in-the-nation schools, rich farm lands and a manufacturing base that provided well-paying jobs with comprehensive benefits, was the place to live.
In 21st century California, its bottom-of-the-barrel schools turn out some of America's most poorly educated children. Farms have been pushed to metropolitan areas' edges. American Farmland Trust reported that in the last 25 years, 616,000 acres of prime agricultural property have been paved.
The study also overlooks another important point. Among those leaving (and thereby contributing to the declining population) are California's top earners. A statistical review published by California's Franchise Tax Bureau showed that between 2007 and 2009, returns with adjusted gross incomes topping $500,000 fell to 98,610 in 2009, the latest year available, from a recent peak of 146,221 two years earlier. For California, with its $10 billion deficit and a plan to cut $5 billion from the education budget, losing the tax base that generates most of the social services, funding is a killer.
A more worthwhile perspective on California's temporarily stabilized population would be: "At last! Now let's do everything we can to keep it that way." Measures to prevent another uptick in population growth should include sensible family planning with the goal of no more than two children, stronger border enforcement, vigorous internal ICE enforcement and mandatory E-Verify legislation, which will slow migration to a crawl. E-Verify is a free online program that instantly confirms if an individual is legally authorized to work in the United States.
As long as we're promoting sensible population control measures, 2012 is an excellent time to stop issuing a million permanent residency visas each year. Many settle in California. Those visas include work permits, a foolish practice that's inconsistent with the reality of 20 million unemployed or under-employed Americans.
The USC report does a valuable service by indicating that one of California's most serious challenges, overpopulation, has abated. But at the same time, it misleadingly suggests that the problem has been solved. That's false.
The hard work — making sure future growth is sensibly managed — is just beginning.
Joe Guzzardi, a Los Angeles native, was born during a decade when California's population was 7 million. Contact him at email@example.com.