Up from Ultimate Urban Dystopia

At a low point a decade ago, Southern California now is growing fast, thanks to young newcomers.

A decade ago, Southern California appeared to be imploding. The confluence of riots, economic distress, fires and a catastrophic earthquake created a loss of confidence throughout the region. Double-digit unemployment, seemingly intractable racial problems and booming illegal immigration led to headlines like this one in the Arizona Republic: “Los Angeles: America’s First Third-World City; Multi-Ethnic Racial Pot a Simmering Stew of Despair.”

An exodus from Southern California ensued; 280,000 people fled the state in 1993-94, an all-time high and one of the highest rates of out-migration anywhere in the United States. The outside world seemed almost gleeful in watching the transformation of the former golden region into the ultimate urban dystopia, and many predicted it could never recover.

But it now seems they were wrong. In fact, the demographic picture has been quietly brightening, and the region is now enjoying one of the highest rates of population growth among the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

Since 2000, the L.A. region has added about 800,000 people from other parts of the U.S., according to annual census data, more than any major metropolitan area in the country—a rate of population increase twice that of Chicago, three times greater than New York and 10 times that of the Bay Area. Even the city of Los Angeles, where the “stew of despair” was supposedly boiling over, has enjoyed a strong surge of post-2000 growth, increasing its population by 125,000 people (not counting immigrants from other countries), while much ballyhooed “hip” cities such as San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago and Boston have all lost population.

As the economy has grown and as people from elsewhere in the United States have reacquainted themselves with the original reasons for flocking to California, annual domestic out-migration has dropped precipitously, to roughly 36,000 today.

Although 36,000 might seem like a lot of people leaving the state each year, it actually represents less than a quarter of 1% of the area’s approximately 17 million people. In comparison, the rate of out-migration for our chief West Coast rival, the Bay Area, is seven times higher, and New York is four times higher.

If fewer people are now leaving L.A., then the next question to be asked is this: Who is moving in? Interestingly, a close analysis of the 2000 census finds that the area continues to attract large numbers of well-educated, younger residents. This migration of Americans and their offspring, added to the continuing influx of immigrants from abroad, accounts for the bulk of the region’s restored demographic dynamism.

Although the data are not yet available, it is likely that since 2000, Los Angeles’ relative gains among educated, younger workers have continued to increase. Some parts of the region—notably the Inland Empire and Orange and Ventura counties—have had very strong growth in higher-wage jobs, according to a recent UCLA analysis. Even Los Angeles, which has done less well, has surprisingly outperformed such cities as San Francisco and San Jose in the years between 1995 and 2004.

These positive trends, however, bring with them many challenges, which our local political leadership, generally speaking, seems unprepared to face. Greater population growth in the region—even when it comes from native-born Americans rather than impoverished immigrants—still means that the region needs to invest heavily in critical infrastructure such as roads, airports, mass transit and healthcare facilities. It also places tremendous pressure on the economy to produce more, and better-paying, jobs, something that is difficult given the anti-business mentality common throughout the region.

Perhaps the biggest challenge lies in education. The L.A. region has about an average percentage of college-educated residents—roughly one in four—and some of the world’s best universities. But at the same time, it also has among the highest percentages of residents in the nation with less than a high school education. Los Angeles County also has among the highest percentages of families living in poverty, surpassed only by Washington, New York and Miami.

Clearly such demographics present a severe set of challenges to the region, which can best be addressed by improving education and continuing to attract more educated residents.

Some local residents may object to a growth-oriented strategy—including new infrastructure spending—because of possible effects on the environment or, more selfishly, on their lifestyle, but the truth is that the region has no real alternative. Because of its growing appeal among young families, Los Angeles—unlike Boston, Seattle or San Francisco—cannot hope to age gracefully into a region of senescent yuppies and soon-to-be-expiring pensioners. For better or worse, we are still a young and growing region, and we need to begin acting our age.