California analysts have sharply reduced estimates of the state's future population, and state planners are reconsidering long-term needs for new schools and other public services primarily as the result of an unexpectedly large decline in the birthrate among Latinos.
The state's population will keep growing as the result of two things: immigration, and births continuing to outpace deaths. But the increase will be notably slower than once believed.
Demographic experts now project California's population to hit about 51 million by 2040 -- 7 million fewer than they forecast a few years ago, according to new state estimates. The state currently has about 36 million residents.
So instead of 600,000 new residents a year, officials now project the state will average about 400,000 annually.
"That maybe takes some pressure off. But even at 51 million, that's nearly a 50% increase over today's population," said Terry Roberts, a director in the Governor's Office of Planning and Research.
"We still have to take care of the people who are here today and who arrive next year, much less 35 years down the line," she said. "And we're already behind."
Much of the drop in projected population results from about 6 million fewer births than originally estimated.
"I think you could safely say more than half the reduction [in births] is because of the reduced ... fertility among Latinas," said Mary Heim, chief of the state Finance Department's demographic research unit, which provides California's official population estimates.
Birthrates have declined among all racial and ethnic groups tracked by the state. But Latinas deliver about half of California's babies, Heim said. Their fertility rate -- the average number of children born to each woman of childbearing age -- has dropped by nearly a quarter in a little more than a decade. Latina mothers now deliver 2.6 babies on average, down from 3.41 in 1990.
The decline was particularly steep, as much as 30%, among the hundreds of thousands of Latinas born in foreign countries, said Hans Johnson, a demographer at the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California.
"It's a big story for California's future," he said. "It will have a significant effect on demand for everything from schooling to water and infrastructure and other public services."
The change reflects, in part, the rapid assimilation into the broader American society of upwardly mobile immigrant Latinos, said Dowell Myers, a USC urban planner and demographics expert.
"People tend to think that Latinos have big families -- six kids -- but the reality is more like three," he said.
Maricela Morales, a 33-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants and a graduate of Stanford University, is a social activist and a city councilwoman in Port Hueneme. She and her friends were determined not to have children young, she said.
"We saw how difficult it was for our parents: There were so many demands at work and at home that it didn't allow for a high quality of life with the children," she said.
The advantages of a smaller family "was something we'd heard about from our friends who were more middle-class," she said. "And we wanted it too."
Catalina Solis, 45, an office manager in Ventura, grew up in a family of seven children. "It seemed such a hardship making ends meet," she said, recalling how her father, a mariachi musician, worked at a steel plant in Vernon and her mother took factory jobs beginning at age 46.
In all, Solis and her six brothers and sisters -- four of whom were born in Mexico -- have had only nine children. Those children, in turn, have had only nine babies.
"We were pretty textbook when it came to assimilation," Solis said.
Immigration and population experts say the drop in fertility rates reflects changes that have occurred around the world during the last decade as women increasingly have joined the paid workforce and gained greater access to education, contraception and family planning.
"The shift from rural economies to urbanization is a big part of it," said Tim Miller, a demographer at UC Berkeley. Around the globe, when families move from farms to cities, they no longer need children as laborers and begin to have fewer.
From 1950 through 1955, women worldwide had nearly twice as many children on average as they do today -- five, compared with 2.69, the United Nations reports. In Mexico, the average family size has dropped since 1960 from nearly seven children to 2.5.
Within Mexico, birthplace of the largest share of California's Latino immigrants, the government has encouraged family planning, Johnson noted. "You even see it on Mexican soap operas," he said. "People talk about using condoms."
Such shifts have caused demographic experts to greatly lower their predictions of how large the world's human population will eventually get.
Here at home, California's overall fertility rate has dropped to 2.13 children for each woman of childbearing age, down from 2.46 in 1990, according to the state's most recent figures.
Johnson, who studied immigrant births in California during the period 1982-1998, said the state experienced a spike in the number of babies born to Latino parents during the 1990s partly as a result of the Reagan administration's amnesty program for illegal immigrants.
About 3 million Latino immigrants, more than half in California, were granted amnesty. "Almost all were male, and they sent for their wives, and we had a baby boom," Johnson said.
The waning of that boom, combined with assimilation and the changing social mores in Mexico, have all contributed to sharply lower birthrates now.
The implications are most immediate for California's schools. Some urban districts are already closing campuses, not building new ones. And more of the same is projected for at least a decade, according to state forecasts that show California public school enrollments peaking in 2007.
The Los Angeles Unified School District experienced a small decline in enrollment last year. But Supt. Roy Romer has said schools remain overcrowded and that dips in enrollment are having little effect.
The district is embarking on a $14-billion program to build 160 schools over about a decade because for years no new schools were built as crowding increased. Thousands of students attend campuses on multiple tracks and year-round calendars, while others are bused to less-crowded campuses miles from their neighborhoods.
State projections show enrollments in schools throughout Los Angeles County peaking next year. Enrollments in Orange, San Diego and Santa Clara counties should peak in 2007, the state reports.
Lower fertility rates account for much of that shift, said Shelley Lapkoff, a demographer in Berkeley who consults with about two dozen Northern California school districts.
The picture in uneven around the state. The recession of the 1990s, the bursting of the Silicon Valley computer industry bubble and a skyrocketing cost of living have slowed population growth in the Bay Area, Lapkoff noted. At the same time, school systems are still expanding in high-growth areas such as the Central Valley and the Inland Empire, where residents from pricey coastal areas are moving in order to find affordable housing.
Overall, however, "most of my clients are experiencing declining enrollments, at least the elementary grades, and now it's reaching the middle schools," Lapkoff said.
"Births peaked in 1990 and they've been falling ever since. Just everywhere we look, they're closing schools."