The number of Hispanics in California will surpass the white population by early next year to become the largest ethnic group for the first time since the state was created, according to a report released Thursday.
The 50-year population projections from the state Department of Finance come days after President Barack Obama said "the time is now" for comprehensive immigration reform and after a bipartisan group of senators unveiled plans for legislation that would give millions of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.
The report showed California's population - 37.8 million today - would hit 50 million by 2049, and 52.7 million by 2060.
By 2060, 48 percent of Californians will be Hispanic, based on the projection. The non-Hispanic white population, now at 39 percent, will decline to 30 percent. The number of blacks will also shrink, from 6 percent to 4 percent, while Asians will continue to represent about 13 percent of the state.
Bill Schooling, chief of the DOF's Demographic Research Unit, said the Hispanic population is growing more rapidly because of its relative youth.
"The Hispanic population doesn't have a large proportion that is 65 and older," he said. "Many of them are school age and working age who, at some point, will go through childbearing years," he said.
The population growth rate, however, is considerably slower than what the DOF had projected in 2007.
"This gives us more time to get our act together," said Dowell Myers, a professor of policy, planning and demography at USC.
"The rapid growth in the 1980s left California in a daze because it added 6 million people in just 10 years - the biggest increase ever recorded in any state - and we've been trying to recover ever since," he added. "With slower, sustained growth, it's much easier to manage."
When asked whether food security might become a concern and whether infrastructure would be able to keep up with the needs of the growing population, Myers sounded optimistic.
"We have to keep building more services for the population, but their growth is coming at a more gradual pace so we should be able to keep up," he said.
One of the key findings of the report was that Hispanics and Asians would represent a growing percentage of the working-age population as non-Hispanic white baby boomers retire over the next 20 years.
By 2030, according to the projection, there would be more whites over age 65 than under age 25.
In contrast, there will be about 7.2 million Hispanics under age 25, and only 2.2 million over age 65.
Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Research Hispanic Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, noted this labor force of the future is increasingly pursuing higher education.
"There's been a real surge over the last few years in the number of young Latinos attending college," he said. "That's important because you want to have a well-trained workforce."
The report estimated that by 2030 there would be almost 10 million Hispanics in the prime working ages of 25-64. Whites will account for about 7 million and Asians, 3 million.
By 2060, Hispanics will be the largest group in the working ages by a considerable margin - about 12 million Hispanics to 7 million whites and 3 million Asians, it added.
"Latinos will really be the majority of the young workers, and it's important that they all be brought up to speed so they can perform at maximum capacity," Myers said.
"These are people who would be born in California, would go to school in California, so we're responsible for making them the best workers and the best taxpayers they can be," he added. "It's to the older generation's advantage to invest in this younger generation, which is predominantly Latino."
The report projected that Southern California would account for most of the population growth. Riverside is expected to have the largest increase to become the second-most populous county after Los Angeles.
"We have a lot of people moving to this county and a lot of population (is) internally increasing," Riverside County spokesman Ray Smith said. "We know that people will be here, so we just have to deal with it."
"There's planning on many different fronts, everything from roads to health care," he added.
Riverside and San Bernardino counties together make up the Inland Empire, which San Bernardino Associated Governments executive director Ray Wolfe called "the focal point counties for rapid growth in the last two decades."
He added the county has a half-cent sales tax to pay for its transportation needs in the future, but that may not be enough to keep up with the expected surge of new residents.
"It can't fall entirely on the local governments to solve that," Wolfe said. "At some point, the state and federal government are going to have to step up and help out more than they currently do."