Bitterrooters assess Californication 

When California’s economy plunged into recession in the early 1990s, more than 400,000 Californians fled the state for greener pastures. That migration made a big splash in places like Seattle where many Californians settled; Ravalli County felt the ripples.

“It doesn’t take a lot of those 400,000 to have a huge impact,” said Harvard University demographer George Masnick before a crowd last Saturday. Masnick, an immigrant from the East Coast who now lives in Hamilton, gave a report on Ravalli County’s demographic trends last Saturday to the Hamilton City Council and city staff at their annual day-long retreat.

City officials, who saw Hamilton’s population soar by 66 percent in the decade just ended, hoped Masnick could give them some population predictions to better help them plan for the future.

But as Masnick pointed out, demographic prediction is an inexact science. Take California’s relatively short-lived recession, for instance. As Californians were fleeing for other Western states, a reverse population trend was taking place in Hamilton. Masnick’s graph shows a plummeting line for the California population beginning in 1987-’88 and bottoming out in 1993-’94. On the same graph, Ravalli County’s population began its rise in 1987 and peaked in 1993-’94, demonstrating what most Bitterrooters have already noticed: the big population increase of the 1990s plateaued in about 1994, then began a steady fall until 1997-’98, when a minor upswing began again.

That sharp population increase in 1994 alarmed school officials who saw Hamilton’s population going nowhere but up. They were not able to predict that the California economy would rebound, keeping Californians in California. Instead, they pitched a successful $13.6 million bond issue for construction of a new high school. The school opened for business last September—six years after the population began to fall. More interesting is what the just-released 2000 census shows about migration trends in Montana, the West and across the country.

Masnick said the 1990 census was an undercount that cost Montana dearly: We lost one of only two congressional representatives as a result. Consequently, the 2000 census, which was far more accurate, showed a large discrepancy between estimated population gains by state and actual gains. New York, for instance, underestimated its population by nearly 752,000 people—an entire congressional district. Likewise, Florida, not known for its counting prowess, underestimated by 719,000—a second congressional district.

Montana underestimated by a mere 17,000 people, which didn’t even put us in the running for a second representative. And that’s the “real story” behind Montana’s failure to regain a second House seat, Masnick said.

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