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With a declining birthrate and ebbing migration into California from other states and nations, the historically fast-growing state will see only relatively slow population expansion in the foreseeable future, the state's own demographers conclude.

However, these trends also mean that Latinos are likely to become the state's largest single ethnic group sometime this year, a data-packed section of Gov. Jerry Brown's new state budget plan concludes.

That's a couple of years earlier than previous demographic expectations.

By July 1, the budget says, California's population is expected to top 38 million, about 300,000 or 0.8 percent higher than last July 1. As the economy improves, the state expects a slight uptick in population growth to an average of 340,000 a year through 2017 with "natural increase" - births minus deaths - accounting for virtually all of it.

The Department of Finance's demographic unit believes that the state will have 39.5 million residents by 2017, implying that it will top 40 million sometime before the 2020 census. While that may still be a lot of bodies, it's a markedly slower rate of growth than once seemed likely for California, especially after the 1990 census revealed that the state gained more than six million residents in the previous 10 years - the highest one-decade total ever recorded for any state.

While the five-year period ending in 2017 will see an overall growth of 4.5 percent, the state says, there are large variations by ethnicity and age, with the highest growth - 27 percent - seen among "young retirees" in the 65-74 year old age bracket, due to the aging of the Baby Boom generation. "Mature retirees" (75-84) and "seniors" (85-plus) also will be expanding much faster than the overall population.

By July 1, too, the state expects the Latino and white populations to achieve parity at 39 percent each, indicating that Latinos will become the state's largest ethnic group shortly thereafter. Asian-Americans are expected to comprise 13 percent of the state's population by July 1, blacks 6 percent, Pacific Islanders under 1 percent, American Indians under 1 percent and multi-race residents 3 percent.

The 74-year-old Brown cited those trends in his budget presentation last week, saying, "This is an aging society and inequality is growing." He proposed to shift more school funds to schools with large numbers of students who are in poverty and/or don't speak English as one response to the demographic challenge


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