State predicts population plateau for Valley future

An aerial shot of California's San Joaquin Valley.(Noel/Adobe)

Central Valley growth is projected to be relatively flat through 2060, according to recent projections from the Department of Finance’s Demographics Unit

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – New population projections from the state Department of Finance (DOF) estimate that the state and formerly fast-growing counties in the Central Valley will each experience slow to no-growth or even shrink over the next 40 years.

California now stands at about 39 million residents and, by 2060, the state estimates we will be right there, according to the latest projections released by DOF in July.

Who will be the biggest loser? Los Angeles is expected to lose 1.3 million residents, falling from 10 million people today to 8.3 million by 2060. The good news? Maybe LA’s clogged freeways and housing shortage will ease. Maybe the Southland won’t suck up so much imported water?

Surprisingly, the trend is similar in Central Valley counties like Tulare and Fresno.

Baby Bust

The trend statewide and locally is born of a declining birthrate while deaths go up due to an aging population. Families are not only having fewer children but are waiting longer to have them. The fertility rate among women under 30 dropped dramatically from 2000 to 2020, according to the March of Dimes, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent maternal health risks and death.

Statewide there were 70,000 births in 1990 to mothers who were 16 to 19. By 2022 there were just 8,000 in this category. Also, there were 160,000 births to mothers 20-24 in 1990. In 2022 the number fell to 58,00 and is expected to drop further to 38,000 by 2040.

Statewide we currently see about 408,000 births annually but that is expected to decline to 341,000 by 2059 – over 20% lower. Families are choosing to have fewer kids.

In Tulare County there were 7,248 births in 1990 – increasing to 8,151 in 2010 but falling to 6,819 in 2022 and expected to fall further to 5,908 in 2040. The lower numbers are impacting local hospitals like Kaweah Delta seeing fewer patients in their maternity wards.

Indeed, total admissions at the area’s largest medical center are down for a variety of reasons. Teen pregnancies have dropped by 80 percent and pregnancies among women ages 20-30 dropped by 60 percent in the last 20 years. Even women in their 30s had fewer pregnancies since 2000, dropping by nearly one-third. The only age of women to see an increase in pregnancy was for those over 40, where pregnancies increased by 21%, but still only represented 6 percent of pregnancies.

Teen pregnancy rates saw similar declines in Fresno, Kings and Madera counties. In Fresno County, women in their 20s saw a smaller decrease of 56 percent in pregnancy rates but saw a 10 percent decline in pregnancies among women 40 and older.

A few years ago, California lost population for the first time in state history. The decline is a product of more people moving to other states and the pandemic’s effect on births, deaths and immigration, says the Public Policy Institute of California.

“Although birth rates have been falling for years, they reached new lows in 2021. Birth rates are not just falling in California: since 2007, the fertility rate across the country has fallen from 2.1 to 1.6. But the California rate fell faster, from 2.2 to about 1.5, and spanned race and ethnicity. Notably, Latina women had the largest decline in California and now also have birth rates below replacement. And teen birth rates are the lowest on record.”

Getting Older

Tulare County’s population is expected to peak at 489,854 in 2035 but then fall below the current population of 472,597 by 2051. The population is expected to age as more people will be 43 and older in 2060.

Fresno County’s population is expected to peak at 1,098,725 in 2053 and then drop to 1,095,205, setting growth back to 2047’s population of 1,095,984, according to projections. Low birth rate will be the driving factor as the number of people aged 30 and older will continue to climb through 2060 while the number of people under 30 declines over the same time.

Similar trends are shown in neighboring Kings and Madera Counties. Kings County’s population is expected to peak at 160,923 in 2048 but then fall to 156,194 by 2060, the same population the state predicts it will have in 2028, just a few years away. In Kings County the population is expected to age as more of the population will be ages 35 and older by 2060. Kings County’s birth rate is expected to remain flat through the next four decades.

Madera County’s population is expected to peak at 162,996 in 2035 but then fall to 156,194 in 2060. That will set Madera back to its projected 2028 total of 156,251. Like Kings County, Madera County’s birth rate is projected to be flat over the next four decades.

There will be little change to the demographics across the Valley with Hispanics continuing to make up anywhere from half to two-thirds of the population while Caucasians will continue to comprise about a quarter to 30 percent of the population.

Falling Estimates

In Tulare County, the DOF has continually lowered expected growth estimates in the past decade as can be seen in a chart created by Tulare County Association of Governments (TCAG) a few years ago. The chart shows the trend by the state agency to lower periodic projections down, which it did again in its latest July 2023 numbers.

The prevailing opinion is that Tulare County is growing fast with an influx of industry and retail in recent years. But the state report predicts our 475,000 population today will actually shrink to 446,000 in 2060!

That is quite a contrast with news that four Tulare County cities were among the fastest growing in the state in 2022.

A 2013 DOF projection estimated that Tulare County would reach 837,000 residents by 2060 reflecting the trends that were seen 20 years ago. Then in 2021 they suggested the county would grow to only 592,000 by that date. In July of this year the number was down to 446,000.

That’s sobering news for the Visalia business community and home builders who are busy planning new developments in town, including the annexation of land into the city for thousands of new homes. Even if Visalia was one of the fastest growing cities in the state – growth was under 1% compared to 3-6% increases in years past.

In Kings County, there are half a dozen new annexations underway around Hanford and Lemoore that will result in enough land for another thousand homes. It is a wake-up call for city and school planners as well.

On the Move

The good news is there are fewer people leaving the Valley than in years past. Over the last decade, net domestic migration, the number of people moving in and out of the county, including those from other countries, has been trending in a positive direction.

From 2011-2021, Fresno went from losing more than 3,500 residents per year to gaining 54. Other counties, like Kings, are losing less, from an exodus of 2,900 in 2011 to just 570 in 2021. Tulare County was able to soften its losses from 1,285 to 1,209. Madera saw slightly more losses, going from 427 leaving in 2011 to 559 in 2021.

So, is everybody heading to the Coast? Nope. San Luis Obispo at 279,00 today will also shrink in 40 years to 265,000, says DOF. Many of those residents favoring a slow growth approach to their community might get their wish.

One factor in population stories that has gotten plenty of press is the news that more people are leaving California due to high cost of living – so called Cal-Exit.

The latest DOF projection shows that in 2020 more than 350,000 people moved out of state due, in part, to the pandemic. That number fell to 318,000 exiting in 2021 and down to 140,000 last year and expected to be 96,000 in 2023. DOF says by 2027, net-migration should be to the positive again averaging an influx of 50,000 to 60,000 people annually.

Still, the DOF keeps changing their mind and suggests wildly different outcomes.

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