Golis: If demographics are destiny, what happens now?

In Sonoma County, a declining population becomes more than a footnote to the disastrous fires of 2017.|

In Sonoma County, a declining population becomes more than a footnote to the disastrous fires of 2017. As with other demographic changes, it suggests a reshaping of the social and economic landscape in ways that deserve more attention from leaders in government, business and the nonprofit world.

You likely read Staff Writer Martin Espinoza's report last week. Between July 1, 2017 and July 1, 2019, the population of Sonoma County declined by some 4,700 people. Net domestic migration showed an even larger loss. The number of people who moved away exceeded the number of people who moved here by more than 7,000. This comes after a couple of decades of slow, steady growth.

No one doubts that the October 2017 fires that destroyed 5,300 homes emerge as the proximate cause of this outmigration.

These are people who decided that the manifest attractions of one of the most beautiful places on Earth weren't enough to keep them here any longer.

Their complaints are by now familiar. The high cost of housing in relation to salaries and wages, the fear of future disasters, the frustrations and dislocations associated with mandatory power outages, the challenges of rebuilding, the sense that government can't keep up when it comes to education or road repairs or people living on the streets — all of these come into play when people ask themselves: Would we be better off living somewhere else?

After two years, Elizabeth and Jake Wilberg, ages 36 and 37, left Santa Rosa for Eugene, Oregon. 'We would have loved to make it work,' she told Espinoza, 'but we started thinking about the future and the kids.'

Doug Kouma, 45, told Espinoza that he loved living in Sonoma County, but 'I just couldn't figure out what my end game was supposed to be.'

Kouma landed a job in Duluth, Minnesota, where the housing is affordable, even if the climate is less hospitable. In January, the average high temperature in Duluth is 20 and the average low temperature is 4, but Kouma decided frigid weather was better than uncertain economic prospects in Wine Country.

A declining population will translate into a decline in public services. Local tax revenues will fall as will population-based state and federal support for streets, highways and schools. (Declining enrollments already were taking a toll on school budgets before the 2017 fires.)

Some may not mind. Among folks who think the best day in the history of Sonoma County was the day they arrived, there's always been a desire to stop any and all future growth.

The problem, of course, is that we are a population of people aging (and retiring) in place. More than 1 in 5 residents is more than 65 years old, and as the baby boomers age, the number of working people in relation to the number of retired people continues to fall. Within 10 years, according to data developed by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, the number of residents over 65 years old will increase by more than 40,000.

So, while government revenues decline, the need for more senior services — and more workers — in health care and related enterprises will continue to grow.

Meanwhile, if retired residents require the services of a doctor or a plumber, a roofer or a home health worker, they will need luck on their side. Already, employers tell the story over and over again: It's tough to recruit people to skilled jobs in Sonoma County. (It's good news that the unemployment rate is so low, but not such good news that jobs go begging.)

If you think out-of- county commuters will solve this problem, you haven't priced housing in Marin County or experienced the aggravations associated with traveling morning and evening from Solano or Lake counties. Never mind the environmental and social impacts of long-distance commuting.

These demographic changes shouldn't be a revelation to anyone paying attention.

The aging of Sonoma County has been continuing apace, while housing costs and other factors inhibited the arrival of the next generation of skilled workers. (There's a reason, after all, that so many young workers who grew up in Sonoma County found permanent homes and jobs elsewhere.)

The same can be said for the changes in the ethnic make-up of the county.

More than 1 in 4 county residents is now Latino. Between 2007 and 2016, the number of Latinos in the county increased by 27%.

Latino kids now outnumber white kids in public school enrollment — and many Latino students face challenges different from those that confronted earlier generations of local families.

While some progress has been made in promoting educational attainment, more livable neighborhoods, employment opportunities and civic engagement, it's a plain fact that we need to do more.

At the last, it isn't complicated. The well-being of this place we call home will depend on the success of future generations of skilled workers, and to succeed, they will need a good education and a place to live.

Going forward, it will be essential that this year's federal census provides an accurate accounting of Sonoma County's population — as well as data that helps us understand who left town and why.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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