By Daniel Weintraub
For decades, Los Angeles County has been a tumultuous demographic soup, with immigrants pouring in, longtime residents moving out, and the status quo turning upside down. The only thing that stayed the same was the pace of change. It was always fast.
But suddenly, the music stopped.
Immigration to Los Angeles has slowed to a crawl, relatively speaking. More of the county’s residents have lived there for decades instead of just a few years. A large cohort of second-generation Americans is rising to prominence. And for the first time since the Gold Rush, a majority of Los Angeles County will soon be homegrown, born in California rather than having arrived from another state or country.
“Los Angeles is the last county in Southern California to cross this threshold,” says John Pitkin, a University of Southern California demographer and co-author of a recent report on the new Los Angeles. Other counties in the region have had a majority of native Californians since the last decade, but Los Angeles was the last to reach a new equilibrium. “This marks a generational shift,” Pitkin said.
There are a lot of factors behind the latest numbers.
The biggest, of course, is the slowing of immigration. Immigration boomed in the 1980s, reaching a flow by 1990 that was double that of 20 years earlier. That spike has defined Los Angeles ever since in the minds of many people, even those who live there. Casual observers probably assumed that immigration had hardly slowed, if at all. But 1990 was the peak. Today the number of new immigrants annually has shrunk to a level not seen since the mid-1970s, despite the overall population being much larger.
More immigrants are now going to other states. In states in the Midwest and South, newcomers got a foothold in the 1990s and then became a magnet for friends and family.
The result: immigrants as a share of Los Angeles County’s population peaked at 36.2 percent in 2000. That ratio is expected to remain stable or slowly decline over the next 20 years.
That trend, in turn will mean that the immigrants who are here will be more established. In 1990, fewer than 6 percent of the immigrants living in Los Angeles County had been there for more than 20 years. Today that percentage has tripled to about 18 percent, and by 2030 the share of longtime residents among the immigrant population is expected to climb to 22.5 percent.
With fewer immigrants, the rise of the homegrown population is happening even though the number of children being born in Los Angeles is also falling. The number of births peaked at 204,000 in 1990 and has since dropped by a third. While the majority of children in the county have at least one parent who is an immigrant, just 6 percent of children are foreign born themselves.
All of this will also make the ethnic composition of the region’s population much more stable. The county’s Latino population grew by 10 percent in the 1980s, less than 7 percent in the 1990s, and barely 3 percent between 2000 and 2010. In the coming decades that growth is expected to slow to just 2 percent.
Latinos are still destined to become a majority of the population at some point, but probably not until about 2030, later than was assumed during the immigration boom. In the meantime, Los Angeles will remain a place where every ethnic group is a minority.
The implications are many. This newfound stability could calm political waters and improve social cohesion. It will slowly relieve burdens on the public schools, as enrollments flatten or even decline. It might improve the economy as a new generation of adults, better educated than their immigrant parents, move into their prime working years. People born here are more likely to stay, which means the state is more likely to recoup its investment in their education.
But there are also potential downsides. California is no longer as big a beneficiary as it once was of a brain drain – and creativity drain – from other states. We are more dependent than ever on our own resources, our own schools and universities to produce the talent we need to sustain the economy. And as the population ages, there will be more older adults who need help, and a demand for younger workers that might outstrip the supply.
Those who see California’s destiny as a feudal society, a land for the very rich and the very poor, may be making the mistake of extrapolating yesterday’s numbers into the future indefinitely. Our second generation and third generation Americans, like those descended from earlier waves of immigrants, will almost certainly do better than their parents.
But the new numbers show that the success of our new, homegrown generation is more important than ever, because their talent and energy will not be backstopped by waves of human capital from other states and nations.
Daniel Weintraub has covered public policy in California for 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report at www.calhealthreport.org