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Survey This, Part Two

By Frank Gruber

At the cliffhanging conclusion of last week's episode, a blast of regional consciousness in the form of employment data interrupted my obsession with things Santa Monican: it turns out non-residents fill most of Santa Monica's 75,000 jobs, while most of the 47,000 Santa Monicans who work commute outside the city.

A friend told me that when he attended the January 22 workshop on the general plan update at John Adams Middle School, one of the participants at his table said that he wanted Santa Monica to be "an island, but diverse."

Well, it's not an island, and the amount of diversity, outside the Pico Neighborhood, is subject to debate. Certainly the people who enter the city to work, shop, get educated, and play represent every economic and demographic group.

So, Santa Monica is not an island. But what's going on in our nearly 18 million-person megalopolis?

Some answers are contained in the two recently-released reports I mentioned last week: the 2004 State of the Region Report from the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) and the USC report on California's Demographic Futures.

The SCAG report is full of great stuff but they should maybe do the report every five years. It often suffers from a forest-for-the-trees syndrome and is full of passages like this:

In the SCAG region the transportation equipment subsector suffered the highest loss in 2003 but accounted for only 17 percent of the total manufacturing job losses. In addition, the computer electronic product subsector lost more than 7,300 jobs, and the fabricated metal industry lost 6,400 jobs. Finally, the apparel manufacturing subsector lost 5,100 jobs, mostly in Los Angeles County.

The SCAG report includes, however, fascinating longer-term data about population trends. Right now Southern California's population is increasing by roughly 300,000 per year (about ten percent of the U.S. total). Ten years ago the increase was less than 100,000 per year (2.5 percent).

But contrary to conventional wisdom the cause of the accelerated growth is neither increased foreign migration to Southern California nor an increase in the birthrate. Both of these factors have moderated. (For instance, the overall fertility in the region fell from 2.6 to 2.2 between 1990 and 2003; the rate for foreign-born Hispanic women, who had the highest rate, fell from 4.34 to 3.25, and the rate for all Latinas fell from 3.41 to 2.6.)

Instead, the increase in the rate of growth results from the fact that fewer people are leaving Southern California. In the years 1993-95, net domestic migration in the six-county SCAG region was a negative of nearly 300,000 per year: almost a million more Southern Californians left the region in those three years than moved here from other parts of the country, and net domestic migration did not turn positive until 1999.

So the good news is that however deep and fiery a hellhole you think Greater Los Angeles has fallen into, it's not so bad a place that Southern Californians are departing in droves, as they did for most of the 90s.

The USC Report analyzes the demographic future of all California, not just our region. The report documents the startling changes that have occurred in the past 25 years and tries to make predictions about the next 25.

In 1980, the foreign-born population of California was 3.6 million (15.1 percent); in 2005, it is 9.8 million (27 percent). The USC demographers project that the number of foreign-born will slowly rise to just less than 30 percent of the state's population in 2030.

But what the demographers also predict, based on current trends, is that as the foreign-born stay here longer, and as their children born in the U.S. grow up, become educated, and join the workforce, they all achieve major advances in social and economic status.

For instance, while only 37.1 percent of recent immigrants have completed high school, that percentage is 61.6 for immigrants who have resided at least 20 years here, and 83.5 for the first generation born to immigrants -- more or less the same graduation rate of the children of long-established Americans.

As the report puts it, "immigrants are not frozen in time . . . [they] are not Peter Pan; they do evolve; and their evolution will make as great a contribution to the transformation of the California population as their arrival." (Emphasis in the original.)

The big picture is that 50 years from now people are going to look back at the 20 or 25 years starting in the mid-70s and see something really big, a migration of historic proportion of millions of people from Mexico, Central America and Asia to Southern California.

It so happened that in the early 90s, right in the middle of this epochal event, the local economy tanked and more than a million (mostly middle class and white) Southern Californians moved out.

People arriving with barely the shirts on their back took the place of people leaving in minivans and SUVs, taking their equity with them -- remember the crash in the real estate market? The region as a whole grew poorer, creating social problems that were unprecedented unless you looked back to the Lower East Side, circa 1905.

Take a deep breath. We just lived through, as the (allegedly) Chinese curse says, "interesting times."

Big social changes are hard to observe in real time, but the indications from the SCAG and USC reports are that we are now in an upswing. Immigration is slowing, poor people are entering the working and middle classes, and immigrants are having fewer children to tax a strained educational system. These children, however, who are better educated than people think, will mean that Southern California will be one of the few regions in the currently industrialized world that will continue to have a plentiful and competent workforce through the middle of the century.

* * *

Not all readers may want to download and read these two reports in their entirety, but anyone who wants to understand the conversation that's going on and will continue to go on about the region's future, should read a "guest essay" William Fulton contributed to the SCAG Report.

William Fulton is one of the great experts on California's recent history and the law and public policy issues relating to development; he is the author of both The Reluctant Metropolis and Guide to California Planning. (He is also now a politician, as the voters of Ventura have elected him to their City Council. The urbanist stars are aligning in Ventura: two weeks ago I linked this column to a speech by Rick Cole, Ventura's City Manager.)

The title of Mr. Fulton's essay is "Is the 2% Strategy a Solution for Southern California?" In case you are wondering, "2% Strategy" refers to a strategy SCAG has developed through its "visioning" process to focus most of the growth in the region (four or five million people in 20 or 30 years) onto two percent of the region's land mass.

As Mr. Fulton puts it, the two percent strategy may seem "pretty far-fetched," but it is not merely plausible, but also the only strategy that will preserve the quality of life Southern Californians cherish. Not, mind you, the "style of life," not the single-family house with the lawn in the desert or on top of a mountain, but the high quality of life that fueled the California Dream: good housing, good jobs, good schools, good environment, etc.

Mr. Fulton points out that the success of this strategy will depend on what two percent of the land the new population falls. If it's the land that is cheapest and most easily available to developers, we will perpetuate our problems. But if growth instead creates new and reinvigorates old town centers, then we can both preserve our natural surroundings and build quality places to live.

Both Mr. Cole's speech and Mr. Fulton's essay are perfectly timed to inform Santa Monica's update of its general plan. Perhaps the City or an organization in the city could invite the two of them to visit and speak.

Here again are the links to the four surveys:

2005 Santa Monica Resident Survey

Santa Monica's Economic & Demographic Profile

Southern California Association of Governments, State of the Region 2004

USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, California Demographic Futures:

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