How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

California's Latino plurality: 'We're confident that it happened'

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In January, the California Department of Finance projected in the state budget that by March of this year, California's Latino population would surpass that of non-Latino whites, making Latinos the state's largest demographic group.

So did it happen? Most likely yes.

"We're confident that it has happened," said Bill Schooling, chief demographer with the finance department. But, he added, while state demographers believe their projection has held true, it's still going to be a while until we know just when the tipping point occurred.

Schooling said it's likely that it won't be until next August, when data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey becomes available, that demographers can get a clearer picture of the state's population. Or for a clearer picture still, until August 2015.

Why not immediately? Because tracking demographic shifts isn't like tracking, say, turnstile counts or the number of hamburgers sold. From a KPCC story last summer, when the state finance department initially projected that the shift to Latino plurality would be taking place:

"We work with estimates. It's not something we're able to pin down," said John Malson, a demographer with the California Department of Finance, which projected this year's population shift in January. "We know it's during this year. And from what we've seen, and past indications, is that it will happen this summer."

...But it could take a couple of years to determine just when the catch-up moment occurred, Malson said, because "we usually rely on data once it has been established." This was the case, for example, when the U.S. Census Bureau established last year that non-white babies had outnumbered white babies. The shift actually occurred in mid-2010.

Of course, as tends to happen with projections, the summer 2013 projection was a little off the mark. In January, that projection was adjusted to March of this year. And for the past month, although the state hasn't released any news, headlines have been announcing that the shift has finally happened.

And it probably has: At last count, when the state budget was released in January, Latinos and non-Latino whites were neck-in-neck, with each group accounting for roughly 39 percent of the state's population. It was expected that by March, Latinos would edge out non-Latino whites just slightly to reach a solid 39 percent, while the latter would drop to about 38.8 percent.

What does a Latino plurality in California represent? It's a major milestone, to be sure. People of Latino/Hispanic descent have not held this status in California, a former Spanish colony and Mexican outpost, since it became a state in 1850.

But while it's a highly symbolic tipping point, political parity is still a long way off. While Latino voters did turn out in record numbers in 2012, their participation still lags behind that of other groups. According to a UC Davis study last year, Latinos constituted 26.3 percent of Californians who were qualified to vote by age and citizenship status in 2012, but made up only 19.7 percent of California voters. As the population grows, though, this is set to change. From the study:

Given projected increases in California’s total and Latino citizen voting age populations, if Latinos were to keep their current eligible turnout rate of 39.4% steady (of course, in reality we would expect many fluctuations) through 2040, their percent of the state’s vote would still rise considerably. We project that Latinos would move from 19.7% of the state’s vote in 2012 to nearly 30% of the vote in 2040.

A contributing factor would be the kind of growth that's happening in the state's Latino population today, driven by more by native U.S. citizen births than by immigration.

As for the day that California has a Latino majority, that is still a long way off: According to state projections, Latinos will likely account for nearly half — 48 percent — of Californians in 2060.

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