The recent news from the state’s Finance Department about our population growth seemed reassuring enough.

The city of Los Angeles added an estimated 44,000 residents last year, bringing the population on Jan. 1 to almost 4,095,000, the department said April 29.

Likewise, California gained residents, pushing the total population to an estimated 38.6 million.

Those are the numbers that were widely reported. And the news stories were reassuring because population growth is important. The fact that the city and state attracted more residents implies jobs are being created and the economy is growing. It means they must be doing something right to lure people.

But wait. Not so fast. If you look at the components of growth, you may not be quite so reassured.

That’s because, to put it bluntly, foreign immigrants are moving in. American-born residents are moving out.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, for the 12-month period that ended July 1, 58,500 more foreign-born people moved in to Los Angeles County than moved out. At the same time, 76,600 more American-born residents moved out than moved in.

Hold on, you might say. If you look at those numbers, you see that more people moved out than moved in, so wouldn’t there be a decrease in population? Well, yes, except for what the Census calls the natural increase; that results when there are more births than deaths. Add that number in, and Los Angeles County had an increase in population, bottom line.

In other words, L.A.’s population in that 12-month period grew only because foreign immigration and the natural increase overwhelmed the number of American-born people driving out in their U-Hauls.

But since that was just one 12-month period, you might wonder if that was an aberration. I looked it up, and, I’m sorry to report, the same is true for the much longer period of 2000 through mid-2009: A net of 1.13 million American-born Angelenos moved out while a net of 651,000 foreign immigrants moved in.

Ditto for the entire state, although the numbers are less dramatic.

So this means that Los Angeles and the state, while still quite attractive to foreigners, is seeing its American-born residents slowly drain away. And that’s a trend that’s been going on for years. That’s not reassuring.

The trend raises a number of questions. How many of the immigrants are the kind of highly skilled, highly motivated people on whom a future economy can be based?

How about those who are leaving? How many of them are college educated or entrepreneurial? And what can the city or the state do to try to keep them?

A more pointed question: Do they even want to try?

The trend implies – shouts, really – that fewer American-born people now see California as the land of opportunity. And the trend is, of course, a reversal from past decades, a time when the most ambitious and motivated of Americans packed up and drove on Route 66 to Los Angeles, where they hoped to live their dreams.

Alas, for many American-born, California dreamin’ has become California leavin’.

Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at ccrumpley@labusinessjournal.com.

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