By birth, by foot, by automobile, from other states and other countries, legally and illegally, people have arrived in California for decades in unrelenting swells, human surf breaking steadily on a vast shore. Occasionally a big set rolls in and harasses state and local officials trying to determine how many new classrooms to build or where to bury the trash, but Californians take it in stride. You can complain, but what good would it do? You can complain about winter, too, but it comes anyway.
We tolerate endless strip malls, foul air, contaminated runoff, window-rattling boom boxes and the weekend crush at Costco and Home Depot. We remain composed in the face of runaway housing prices, electricity shortages, crowded schools and—well, maybe not crowded schools. That one rankles. But what we suffer even less well than crowded schools, the thing that makes even the most tolerant Californians notice that their cities have become overstuffed, is all the endless, miserable, stinking, standing traffic. In Los Angeles, in San Diego, in Sacramento, in the Bay Area, freeway traffic sits like an automotive still life, then inches along as we fume in the fumes. On a roadside in San Jose after a fender bender, a driver grabs another driver's small dog, Leo, and throws the helpless animal into oncoming traffic.
If projections through 2040 by demographers in the state Department of Finance prove accurate, conditions will only get worse. Much worse. New residents continue to wash over California's borders, but the state is neither attempting to restrain growth nor building adequate infrastructure to accommodate it. And the boat continues to fill.
During the last half of the last century—an epoch encompassing most of the baby boom and, a generation later, all of the boom's echo—the state's population grew by more than 24 million. The next 24 million—more than the population of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska combined—will arrive more quickly, inflating the total to nearly 60 million within 36 years. Barring the long-overdue mother of all earthquakes, a tightening of federal immigration policy, or the Rapture, California's population, currently at 36 million, likely will double within the lifetime of today's schoolchildren. A close look at the numbers suggests that the 1990s began a pattern in which California receives more new residents each decade than it did the previous one. The 2020s will witness the greatest 10-year increase in state history, and the numbers in the 2030s will be greater still.
"Come to California," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger urged the world more than once in his State of the State address this month. But most residents are not happy about this trend. In a 2001 statewide poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, half of the respondents said they considered the previous decade's population growth a "bad thing." More than four of five said that continued growth would make the state a less desirable place to live.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein isn't happy about the numbers either. "I find them very distressing and I'll tell you why. If the growth comes before the ability to handle that growth, what you inevitably have is a backlash. That's what drove Proposition 187," she says. That 1994 ballot measure, overwhelmingly approved by voters but later gutted by the courts on constitutional grounds, sought to deprive illegal immigrants of most state-funded social benefits. "I think growth is California's No. 1 problem, and how that growth happens is critical to the future of the state," the Democratic senator adds. "The problem is that most of the growth is concentrated on the West Coast and in cities."
One of the best remedies would be to improve north-south transportation, Feinstein says, specifically by building "a rail spine down the center of the state so that you would be better able to diffuse population instead of having huge congested cities growing all the time with more stress and more strain. I do a lot of flying over California. There is a lot of space in California."
In other words, there's plenty of room at the Hotel California as long as everyone doesn't keep checking into the same overused rooms.
The Eagles were right: This could be heaven or this could be hell. But the more closely you examine California's plight, the more the heaven part looks iffy. No other state has so many residents (Texas ranks second, but with almost 40% fewer people), and no other state comes close to matching California's annual net population increase. In Los Angeles County and five surrounding counties—Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, Ventura and Imperial—the population now stands at more than 17 million. That's nearly 6% of the U.S. population, one in every 17 Americans, all within a four-hour drive—if you can find four hours when the traffic isn't bad. At least 20% already live in crowded housing, and poverty levels have increased steadily for three decades. Yet during the next 25 years the region is projected to grow by 6 million.
This is not exactly a formula for a Golden State.
Most of the conversation about growth these days revolves around principles of growth management—"smart growth" in planning-speak. Schwarzenegger is heading down this road, rhetorically anyway. Smart growth emphasizes increasing density in cities as an alternative to sprawl, enabling people to live close to where they work, minimizing environmental impact, preserving open space, and encouraging public transit, bicycling, and walking rather than driving. But the discussion is always about accommodating growth, never about slowing, limiting, or stabilizing it. Mention the idea of somehow trying to limit the population and politicians react as though you have suggested that our society eat cats and dogs instead of cows and pigs. Curb population growth? The very notion is unthinkable because—well, this is America.
"How do you do it?" Feinstein asks. "Are you going to tell people not to have children? I don't think so. I have never had a single county official say, 'We have decided we want to slow growth in our county, and here's how we want to do it, and we need the federal government's help.' "
If, as Feinstein says, growth is California's no. 1 problem, the root of that problem is immigration. It would be better if this were not so, because it sets up an us-versus-them tension that debases everyone within its reach, but the raw numbers leave little room for debate. Demographic studies after the 2000 census revealed that from 1990 to 2000, immigrants and their children accounted not for just some, or even most, of California's growth. They accounted for virtually all of it. Of the increase of 4.2 million people during those 10 years, the net gain generated by the native population was just 90,000, fewer than attend each year's Rose Bowl game.
Immigrants—specifically Latinos, who constitute the majority of the state's more than 9 million immigrants—inflate the population not just by coming to California but by having children once they're here. While the combined birthrate for California's U.S. citizens and immigrants who are not Latino has dropped to replacement level, the birthrate for Latino immigrants from Mexico and Central America averages more than three children per mother.
Changes in federal policy since 1965 have elevated the number of immigrants legally admitted to the U.S. annually from a few hundred thousand to more than 1 million in recent years. California has long received far more immigrants—legal and illegal—than has any other state. This has worked out well in some respects (cheap labor supply, ethnic diversity, Schwarzenegger), not so well in others (social welfare costs, increasing poverty, Schwarzenegger). While the costs are significant, the benefits are so vast and varied—from critical high-tech expertise in Silicon Valley to breathtaking multicultural richness—that anyone but an unrepentant xenophobe would agree that they are incalculable. None of which alters the fact that immigration, more than any other factor, will probably determine how crowded and environmentally unsustainable California becomes in the years ahead.
Santa Barbara-based Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), the most prominent of several population-control groups around the state, wants the federal government to crack down on illegal immigration (various estimates place California's illegal immigrant population at more than 2 million) and reduce the number of immigrants permitted to legally enter the United States. "We're just sick and tired of the fact that nobody will address this issue," says CAPS President Diana Hull. "I am simply baffled by the timidity of the politicians on this."
Earlier this month, President Bush announced his plan to relax U.S. immigration policy. The president said he wants to create legal status for many of the estimated 8 million to 11 million illegal immigrants who live and work in the U.S.—a proposal some feel rewards those who have ignored the law and may encourage more illegal immigration.
And what of the current limits on legal immigration? Asked recently if she is comfortable with those numbers, Feinstein, who serves on the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship, hesitated. "Well, I have to take another look at that before I answer that question," she said. "I don't want to answer it off the top of my head."