Sustainable California: The Unmentionable Problem of Population Growth

Published on September 23rd, 2010




In 1970, as America celebrated the first Earth Day, the population in California was under 20 million. Since then it has grown steadily and inexorably, and today it has doubled to over 39 million. The California Department of Finance projects that it will exceed 54 million by 2040, an increase from today’s level equivalent to the entire populations of Nicaragua, Norway, and New Zealand. Population density in the state already exceeds that of Europe, and by mid-century will be higher than China’s. This huge increase in the human population has had a severe impact on California’s natural environment and a deleterious effect on the state’s infrastructure, budget, economy, and schools. Further declines seem inevitable unless we take steps to reduce this continuing increase.

graph.jpgIn the early days of the modern environmental movement, conservationists were fond of noting, “Every environmental problem is a population problem.”An updated paraphrasing for California could well be: “Nearly every problem in the state is exacerbated by population growth.”

In 1970, high birth rates and interstate migration drove California’s population growth. Today, immigration is responsible for the growth. As the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters noted, “California’s growth is almost entirely a product of immigration, legal and illegal…. Indeed, immigration and babies born to immigrant mothers comprise virtually all of California’s net population growth….”


With the increase in the human population has come an inevitable decline in other species. Land used for housing, roads, businesses, schools and other forms of human activity has displaced land in its natural state. California has already lost 99 percent of its native grasslands, 80 percent of its coastal wetlands, and 94 percent of its interior wetlands.

The state has some of the most varied wildlife habitat on earth, boasting more endemic species than any other state, but rapid population growth imperils this extraordinary biodiversity. At least 73 plants and animals are extinct in California and 134 species are threatened or endangered. The noble coastal redwood is the state tree, but logging has felled 96 percent of the original old-growth redwoods. The state animal, the California grizzly bear, appears on the state flag, but it is extinct in California.

Population growth aggravates virtually every environmental problem in the state, and threatens to erase the gains made through conservation measures and technological advances. Carbon dioxide emissions per capita in California have fallen by 30 percent since 1975, but the state’s total emissions have increased by 25 per cent as the soaring population has overwhelmed conservation efforts. California has been the number one agricultural state for more than fifty years and produces over half the nation’s fruit, nuts, and vegetables, but water shortages and population pressures threaten agricultural production as development now consumes an average of about 50,000 acres of farmland per year. One of every six acres developed in California since the Gold Rush was paved over between 1990 and 2004 according to American Farmland Trust, which notes, “The underlying causes of farmland loss in California are rapid population growth and the inefficient use of land”.

Water supply issues are always at crisis levels in California where much of the state is arid and precipitation is seasonal. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a great ecological treasure, a lynchpin in the state’s agricultural system, and the source of drinking water for 25 million people. The California Department of Water Resources fears “an ecological disaster,” stating, “As a result of the State’s increasing population, demand for water and changing environmental conditions, the Delta is in jeopardy of collapse”.


In 1970, California had the seventh most educated work force among the 50 states as measured by the share of its workers who had completed high school. By 2008, it had plummeted to 50th, making it the least-educated state in the nation—a startling transformation for a state once iconic as the center of technological innovation. One in six workers in the state has not graduated from high school.

The reason? Immigration. The percentage of California’s population comprised of immigrants grew from nine percent in 1970 to 27 percent in 2008. Immigrants in the state are six times more likely than natives to have dropped out of high school, and one-third of the adult immigrants who settled in the state in 2007 and 2008 had not completed high school. Educational levels are especially low among illegal aliens where over half of adults have not finished high school. Due to this lack of education, adult illegal aliens have double the poverty rate of adult native-born Americans, 27 percent versus 13 percent.

Once renowned for their excellence, California’s public schools now face the impossible task of attempting to teach crowded classrooms filled with the children of high school dropouts, many of whom do not speak English. Test scores for the 2010 STAR program reveal that only 52 percent scored “proficient or above” in English, and less than half were proficient in math. Lower educational levels among the workforce will make it increasingly difficult for California to compete globally.


A number of studies have found that illegal immigration imposes a severe fiscal strain on governments and taxpayers. A report from the Federation for American Immigration Reform estimated the annual costs of illegal immigration to federal, state and local governments at about $113 billion—nearly $29 billion at the federal level and $84 billion at the state and local level.

At the federal level, tax revenue from illegal aliens covers only one-third of the expenditures. At the state and local level, an average of less than five percent of the public costs associated with illegal immigration is recouped through taxes collected from illegal aliens. The annual outlay that illegal aliens cost U.S. taxpayers is an average amount per native-headed household of $1,117.

Of particular concern in California is the impact on the state budget where there is an annual struggle to close a gap of billions of dollars. The state spends an estimated $21.8 billion annually on illegal aliens—including $11 billion on education; $3 billion on prisons, police, and courts; and $11 billion on medical services.

While the economic impact of all immigration, legal and illegal, is even more complicated, it is increasingly clear that the brunt of massive immigration falls on those least able to afford it, individuals at the bottom of the economic ladder. Harvard’s labor and immigration economist George Borjas examined the impact of the 1980-2000 immigrant influx on U.S. wages. He concluded, “Immigration lowered the wage of native workers, particularly of those workers with the least education. The wage fell by 3 percent for the average worker and by 8 percent for high school dropouts.”

The National Academy of Sciences reached a similar conclusion in its definitive 1990’s study on the impact of immigrant workers on U.S. workers. It found that low-wage foreign workers tended to drive down wages and job opportunities for similarly educated U.S. workers and that immigration had been responsible for 40 to 50 percent of the wage depression for workers without a high school degree in recent decades.

The unemployment rate currently has exceeded 9 percent for 16 straight months and there are 14 million unemployed job hunters, but the federal government issued 1.5 million permanent and temporary work visas over the past year. American workers should fill the eight million jobs currently held by illegal aliens. The situation is even worse in California where unemployment exceeds 12 percent.


The False Solution of Amnesty

Amnesty is no answer to the problems caused by years of mass, unchecked illegal immigration; it is not the solution because it does not work. An amnesty granted to 3 million illegal aliens by IRCA in 1986 led to our present dilemma—11 million or more illegal aliens. Each amnesty encourages further illegal immigration because it gives the impression that another amnesty will be awarded in the future.

Secondly, amnesty is expensive. Illegal aliens would become eligible for a wide array of expensive welfare, retirement, and educational services. Illegal alien children who are not currently eligible for State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) represent an additional 1.27 million potential new beneficiaries at an additional cost of about $4.2 billion per year.

Illegal aliens currently working in the underground economy would become eligible for the EITC and the child tax credit. That would represent an additional drain on the Treasury of more than $20.2 billion annually for the EITC and an additional $2.6 billion in child credits. A huge, but frequently overlooked, cost of amnesty to U.S. taxpayers is the addition of millions of recipients to the already overburdened Social Security System. The Heritage Foundation concluded that, “the net cost to taxpayers of retirement benefits for amnesty recipients is likely to be at least $2.6 trillion.”

Enforcing Our Immigration Laws

An enforced ban on hiring illegal immigrants would cause many to leave the country voluntarily— an approach known as attrition through enforcement. The federal government must mandate usage of the successful E-Verify program and penalize businesses that knowingly hire illegal employees. This would help unemployed American workers and discourage new illegal immigration. The SAVE Act, HR 3308, would require public and private businesses nationwide to use the E-Verify system.

Secure U.S. borders are essential. In 2006- 2007, deployment of the National Guard for the Jump Start border operation effected a 60 percent decrease in illegal apprehensions. Fewer people attempted illegal entry because of the deterrence of the National Guard.

Our nation must also tackle the other component of illegal immigration—those who enter our country legally, but then do not leave upon the expiration of their tourist, work, or student visas. The government must develop procedures to guarantee that those who arrive with our permission depart when that authorization expires. About 40 percent of illegal immigrants came here on a legal visa, and then overstayed that visa.

Reducing Immigration

While the issue of illegal immigration has received some much-deserved attention, the high levels of legal immigration have escaped sufficient scrutiny. Barbara Jordan’s U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform studied the impact of immigration and issued four reports between 1994 and 1997. It concluded that immigration should be simplified to three categories—nuclear family members, skilled workers, and refugees—with a total annual cap of 550,000. Instead, our rudderless immigration policy now admits over twice that number, averaging over 1.1 million per year over the past half decade, the first time in U. S. history that immigration has exceeded one million for five consecutive years.

The Jordan Commission was not the first group of experts to recognize the deleterious impacts of population growth and massive immigration. In 1972, the congressionally mandated Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, frequently known as the Rockefeller Commission, recognized that “our population cannot grow indefinitely” and the nation should “welcome and plan for a stabilized population.”



The Commission called for the U.S. “to address itself, first, to the problems of its own disadvantaged and poor” and recommended that “immigration levels not be increased.” Legal immigration then was 370,000 per year, one-third of its current level.

Congress must set immigration limits, keeping in mind the stresses that population growth places on society and the environment. In Australia, with a population of 22 million in an area the size of the contiguous United States, environmentalists and elected officials have acted to reduce immigration and population growth. In fact, the Australian government recently created the position of Minister for Sustainable Population. Until Congress enacts an overall limit, it should move to eliminate or reduce some of the more egregious components of U.S. immigration policy.

Eliminate the Visa Lottery

Perhaps no program is more emblematic of the irrationality of our immigration policy than the diversity visa lottery—giving away American citizenship based on a drawing. The SAFE for America Act, HR 2305, would eliminate the visa lottery that annually awards 50,000 green cards to people without regard to the situation of the immigrants or the needs of this country.

Protect American Workers, Reduce H-1B Visas

Given the recession and high levels of unemployment, it is particularly unconscionable that foreign workers displace American workers. Training and education are the answers to finding high-quality workers, not importing so-called temporary workers. The number of H-1B visas should be reduced to protect American workers. The H-1B and L-1 Visa Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act, S 887, would require employers to attempt to recruit a qualified American worker before hiring an H-1B guestworker, and bar the practice of “H-1B only” ads. This, coupled with a mandatory E-Verify program, would do much to help besieged American workers.

Chain Migration

During the past decade, family-based immigration has accounted for about two-thirds of legal permanent immigration. This chain migration, where one immigrant sponsors several others for admission, who then sponsor several more immigrants, has driven immigration levels up. The Jordan Commission concluded that it was in America’s national interest to eliminate extended family-based immigration categories. The Nuclear Family Priority Act, HR 878, would incorporate this recommendation and eliminate chain migration, while expediting reunification of nuclear families.

Family Planning

Finally, we need to fund family planning here and abroad. While the hard work of individuals and organizations has led to significantly lowered birthrates in many parts of the world, there remains a great, unmet need for family planning services here and abroad. America has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. While the rate has declined in California, over 50,000 babies were born to teen mothers there in 2008.

Congress should pass the Global Democracy Promotion Act, HR 4879, to eliminate permanently the global gag rule that has restricted U.S. funding of international family planning assistance.


Rapid population growth and large-scale immigration no longer serve the interests of America or Americans. Special interest groups, each demanding an increase in some segment of immigration to serve its narrow interests, have combined to create the unwieldy morass that constitutes current immigration policy. But, as the Jordan Commission noted, “It is both a right and a responsibility of a democratic society to manage immigration so that it serves the national interest.”

While we should be proud that we have built a nation that is attractive to so many, we must realize that not every one can come here. Our first duty is to those in need among our own citizenry. Congress must be cognizant of the strain that unconstrained population growth places on society and the environment, and must set limits so that we may have a more sustainable America.



California Department of Finance.
"Population Projections for California and Its Counties 2000-2050, by Age, Gender and Race/Ethnicity," July 2007
http://www.dof.ca.gov/research/demographic/ reports/projections/p-3/

The United States Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by Barbara Jordan, 1990-97

CA_flag.jpgCamarota, Steven A. and Karen Jensenius.
“A State Transformed: Immigration and the New California.” Center for Immigration Studies, June 2010
http://www.cis.org/articles/2010/californiaeducation. pdf

Martin, Jack and Eric A. Ruark. “Fiscal Burden Of Illegal Immigration On United States Taxpayers. FAIR, July 2010
http://www.fairus.org/site/DocServer/USCostStudy_ 2010.pdf?docID=4921

Palmer, Tim, ed., “California’s Threatened Environment.” Planning and Conservation League Foundation, 1993
“Paving Paradise: A New Perspective on California Farmland Conversion,”
American Farmland Trust, November 2007
http://www.farmland.org/programs/states /ca/Feature%20Stories/documents/ PavingParadise_AmericanFarmlandTrust_ Nov07.pdf

Rector, Robert. “Amnesty Will Cost U.S. Taxpayers at Least $2.6 Trillion.” The Heritage Foundation, June 2007
http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/ 2007/06/amnesty-will-cost-us-taxpayersat- least-26-trillion

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