SAN FRANCISCO — A steady influx of young immigrant families, coupled with an exodus of older, wealthier residents, has helped California resist the graying seen across America during the last decade.
The patterns, revealed in new Census Bureau data, will reshape everything from education to crime to public health. And while some see California aging gracefully, others fear dynamics that will pit schools against nursing homes.
“It’s our youthful immigrants who will take care of us as we’re older, so we better figure out a way to help them now,” said Fernando Torres-Gil, director of UCLA’s Center for Policy Research on Aging.
Because of its size, California remains the state with the largest number of elderly, according to Census 2000 data.
Even so, Californians’ median age is just a few months past 33, a full two years younger than the median for the United States. In 1990, with a median age of 31, Californians were about 18 months younger than the rest of the country.
Only four states are younger. Residents of Utah, with a median age of 27, have not yet celebrated their 10th high school reunion. On the other end, West Virginians – with a median age just short of 39 – live in the state with the oldest population.
While California is younger than the rest of the country, the state also isn’t aging as quickly.
One major reason: California is adding kids more quickly than the nation. Nationally, the number of people 19 years old or younger rose 13 percent during the 1990s. In California, the increase was 18 percent.
Demographers attribute this baby boomlet to the state’s burgeoning population of immigrants, who generally arrive in their late 20s and tend to have more kids than native-born residents.
Without immigrant-headed families, the state’s average resident would be three years older, according to Steve Camarota of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies.
The divergent interests between an older, whiter population and younger immigrants could inflame debates about who gets public funds.
“There are plenty of school districts in the Bay Area who a few years back fell into the trap of thinking they wouldn’t need as many facilities,” said Paul Fassinger, research director at the Association of Bay Area Governments. “And now we see prefabricated buildings being wedged into the corners of campuses.”
Such school districts are searching for new properties in a tight market. Older property owners, some of whom have no kids in local schools, shoulder that tax burden.
“That is a recipe for political turmoil,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates restricting the flow of immigrants.
Political tension over immigration has subsided in recent years. Meanwhile, communities that attract new immigrants are growing – and remaining relatively young.
Nowhere is that clearer than the immigrant-heavy Central Valley. The state’s seven youngest counties are all there, with Merced County the youngest at a median age of 29.
Immigrant families with four or more kids are no exception in cities such as Fresno. That’s where Socorro Acosta lives with her husband and four kids, ages two months to 14 years.
“Rent is not that high and there is always work here, in the field or the packing companies,” said Acosta, who came to the United States 12 years ago as a 19-year-old. “Here there are many programs that help the immigrants.”
In contrast, counties in the state’s northern reaches and Sierra Nevada foothills grew older for two reasons – retirees arrived from places such as the San Francisco Bay Area, and younger workers left a moribund economy. Sparsely populated Trinity County in the far north, and Calaveras County in the Sierra Nevada foothills, are the oldest counties. The median age for residents in both is close to 45 years.
Meanwhile, droves of Californians are electing to live their golden years outside the
Estimates vary, but demographers agree that hundreds of thousands of people left California during the recession of the early-mid 1990s. Most projections show that trend continuing into 1999, when somewhere between 80,000 and 115,000 more people left the state than came to stay.
Many went to Western states such as Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Colorado, though Texas received the most former Californians, according to demographer William H. Frey of the Santa Monica-based Milken Institute.
Some of those emigrants were low-skilled, younger workers. But many were wealthier people looking to cash out home equity for the autumn of their lives, Frey said.
“The pre-retirees are people moving here for their last job,” said Jeff Hardcastle, Nevada’s state demographer.
California’s high cost of living is also a factor – not only does it deter seniors from moving here, it also pushes some to leave.
“It’s a little cheaper than L.A., the taxes are better,” said Marilyn McVey, a 56-year-old who moved from Los Angeles to a planned community in Las Vegas more than a year ago.
Not that all state residents are buying a one-way ticket for their 60th birthday.
“California will not be wanting for elderly at all levels of the socio-economic stratus,” Frey said.
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