Assuming there isn’t a megaflood in the Central San Joaquin Valley and the state of California remains intact, populations in the state will stagnate as people age and have fewer children, analysts say. But the counties that grow will do so with the help of their universities.
Demographers from the California Department of Finance updated their 2060 population outlook this month. The biggest change was a predicted population slowdown that came faster than expected, said Andres Gallardo, a demographer with the department.
“We had 420,000 births from the last calendar year, and in previous forecasts, we had expected that number to be closer to 450,000,” Gallardo said.
By 2060, demographers predict the state population to grow by 1.3%, adding only 500,000 people to the state’s 39 million people here now.
Central Valley counties, however, especially Merced, Fresno, and Kern counties, will outpace the state in terms of growth.
Demographers forecast 7.8% and 5.5% growth for Fresno and Kern counties, respectively. Merced County is expected to experience a remarkable 16.8% growth over the next 37 years.
But one county stands out among others in the Valley. The population in Tulare County is forecast to decline 6.3% by 2060 from today’s numbers. An aging population there will put the county’s predicted fate in line with the rest of the state, whereas younger populations will keep Merced County youthful.
Older Parents Mean Smaller Families
Scientific studies suggest flooding in the San Joaquin Valley could cause trillions of dollars of damage, displacing the area’s population. Geologists have also theorized the San Andreas Fault could split the state in two. But demographers aren’t looking for natural disasters in population models, Gallardo said. They are looking at birth rates, age, and immigration.
Worldwide, women are waiting longer to have children. Older mothers tend to have fewer children, Gallardo said.
In California, the share of births from women 15 to 29 years old has declined since data was first reported in 1990. Conversely, the share of women aged over 30 years old giving birth has risen. Most births this year will come from mothers between 30 and 34 years old, demographers say..
That trend will continue. Twenty years ago, the percentage of births from women aged 35 to 39 years old was 13.4%. By 2040, that share will double.
COVID also slowed international immigration to the state, Gallardo said. With COVID restrictions relaxed, Gallardo predicts the state will return to the 150,000 incoming people a year.
UC Merced Keeps the County Young, Four-Year University for Tulare County?
Younger populations will keep Merced County's population growing, Gallardo said.
"That has implications throughout the future because you have young people coming in," Gallardo said. "They're probably going to have a kid, these days, in the next five to 10 years, and that kid is going to grow up and have another kid in, you know, 30, 35 years."
UC Merced is producing large spikes of 20- and 21-year-old people in the county, according to the Department of Finance's forecast. The impact colleges have on larger Kern and Fresno counties is less pronounced, said Gallardo, but nonetheless there.
In 2022, UC Merced enrolled 9,103 students. At less than half the student body of the next smallest UC campus — UC Santa Cruz had just under 20,000 students — Merced has been growing since its first enrollment year in 2005.
The challenge for counties is keeping young people there. There have to be jobs available to entice young people to stay.
Tulare County is the second-largest county in the state lacking a four-year university. But, in November 2022, Tulare County voters approved Measure C. The property tax assessment allows the College of the Sequoias to issue $95 million in bonds to create a University Center.
Expanded facilities at the community college would allow students to get some bachelor's degrees closer to home through a partnership with Fresno State.
A 2019 study by the California State University system into potential new locations did not name Tulare County as a possibility. But Visalia Economic Development Manager Devon Jones is hopeful one gets built in the town.
"We continue to support the state's potential exploration of a CSU or UC in Visalia, but in the meantime, the University Center is going to be fantastic and we applaud the College of the Sequoias and Fresno State for their efforts to bring postsecondary education to the people in our region," Jones said.
Demographers Predict Tulare County Slowdown, Visalia Begs to Differ
Demographers don't account for unfinished projects in their models, Gallardo said. After a new industry or university brings in people, then models are updated.
But economic activity in Visalia suggests anything but a population decrease, Jones said.
"The direction Visalia is going does not reflect a drop in population growth," Jones said.
In 2022, 500 new single-family homes became available to homebuyers. The city has surpassed that number for eight years straight.
Apartment builders have also recently seen the potential in the Visalia rental market. The 691 multi-family units built in 2022 constitute more than the previous nine years combined.
On the affordable housing end, the Tulare County Housing Authority has 922 deed-restricted units in the pipeline. A 222-unit development is expected to break ground 2024. And, a 66-unit development will be completed by winter 2024.
Developers plan to build 472 units of affordable units across five projects over the next two years. An 80-unit senior home is expected in 2027.
Fueling jobs is 1 million square feet of commercial development each year for the past five years, led by Visalia's industrial park, said Jones.
Amazon and UPS both opened distribution centers in the past three years, bringing nearly 1,700 jobs between the two of them, according to the Visalia Times-Delta.
"We are optimistic that we will continue to see more growth in the community, particularly as we continue to grow our industrial park," Jones said.