SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Based on her own family experience, Christina Garcia, 27, envisions a growing role for Latinos in California's future economy.
While Garcia's father toils at a tomato paste cannery, she is now an assistant manager at a bank. And the lifelong Yuba City resident talks to her nieces about the importance of education, hoping they will do even better in life.
"We want to instill in them the opportunities are there," Garcia said Monday while taking her 9-year-old niece, Tatiana Ramirez, to the city pool.
Based on demographic projections announced Monday by the state Department of Finance, California's economic future could well be shaped by the success - or setbacks - of Latinos, the coming majority population.
By the year 2050, California's largely white baby boomers will have passed on, giving way to younger, second- or third-generation Latino families. Latinos are forecast to make up 52 percent of the state's population by midcentury, compared to 26 percent white, 13 percent Asian, 5 percent African American, 2 percent multiracial and 1 percent American Indian or Pacific islander.
The projections also showed California will add more than 25 million people by 2050, bringing the state population to just under 60 million. According to state statistics, the Golden State is projected to hit the 40 million mark in 2012 and 50 million by 2032. In contrast, the state had fewer than 34 million residents in the 2000 census. The largest growth, percentage-wise, will come in Sutter County, where Garcia pondered the future Monday.
Latinos will constitute the majority of Californians by 2042, according to the projections, which are based on births, deaths and migration - domestic and foreign, legal and illegal.
"The sky is the limit for Latino children today," said Dowell Myers, a University of Southern California professor who recently wrote the book "Immigrants and Boomers." "They're going to have a world of opportunities handed to them as the baby boomers, who are largely white, retire. We haven't felt in the past that we needed them that much. But we're going to feel it."
But Latino political leaders and policy researchers say the demographic shift brings considerable challenges.
Francisco Estrada, public policy director for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, said Latinos currently earn less than whites, are more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to attend college.
"There's concern because Latinos are now the largest ethnic group and the number of Latinos going on to college are still relatively small," he said.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Latinos had a median household income of $33,676 in terms of 1999 figures, compared to $44,687 for whites. The national average was $41,994.
Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez said in a statement Monday that California leaders need to consider needs of a changing population when making decisions on education, housing and other issues.
"Those of us entrusted with shaping public policy today have to keep an eye on the realities of tomorrow," he said.
Latino advocates have been discouraged by what they consider to be setbacks. In 2005, California agreed to pay $1 billion to settle a highly publicized lawsuit alleging students in many low-income communities were being shortchanged on books and equipment.
Now more programs are on the cutting block. For example, a University of California-run academic program to help disadvantaged youth toward a four-year college degree in math has seen funding cut in half since the late 1990s. It's unclear whether the governor will keep the Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement (MESA) program in the budget, said Executive Director Oscar F. Porter.
"It's a great paradox," Porter said. "The workforce needs of the state are substantial in science and engineering, yet for the past four years MESA has not been included in the governor's budget."
The Legislature has proposed restoring funding as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers negotiate a tight budget. Administration spokesman H.D. Palmer said the Republican governor is supporting other programs, such as a $50 million English Tutoring Program that had been scheduled to expire this year.
Nunez said state leaders need to be attuned to such realities or the state will face unwanted consequences.
"If we don't work now to end the achievement gap that sees Latino dropout rates still too high and test scores of poor students and English learners too low, we'll have significant numbers of the majority population coming out underserved and underprepared for real participation in the state and its economy," the speaker said.
Myers said that Latinos not only will make up a large part of California's workforce, they will represent much of the population growth inland.
Fast-growing Riverside County, now the state's sixth-largest county in population, is expected to zoom to second by 2050 with an estimated 4.7 million people. Sacramento County is expected to gain about 1 million more, bringing the population to nearly 2.2 million residents. Placer County will gain half a million more people.
Of all California counties, Los Angeles will add the most new people - 3.5 million - to reach 13 million residents.
In Sutter County, which is expected to nearly triple in population, a new community - Sutter Pointe - is being developed by Lennar Corp. and AKT Development near the Sacramento County border.
Sutter County Administrator Larry Combs said county planners are doing all they can to brace for the boom. But he fears elected state and regional officials are being shortsighted in planning mass transit needs and reducing freeway congestion.
"Once the population hits," he said, "it will be 10 times what you pay if you put it in now."