By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California's Hispanic population will equal that of whites this year before becoming the state's largest demographic group in 2014 for the first time since statehood in 1850, a government report showed on Thursday.
That change in the most populous U.S. state will make it the third where whites do not comprise a plurality of the population, after New Mexico and Hawaii.
The shift is occurring alongside nationwide growth in the Hispanic population, which grew to 16.7 percent of the total in 2011 from 12.5 percent in 2000, according to U.S. Census figures.
It also comes amid a national debate on immigration that Democratic President Barack Obama waded into this week when he outlined his goals for immigration reform in a speech in Las Vegas.
Obama called on Congress to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, among other measures, a day after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators unveiled outlines of an immigration reform proposal they will try to pass this year.
The newly released report from the California Department of Finance, which regularly crunches demographic figures, says that whites comprised 40 percent of the state's population in 2010, with Hispanics at 38 percent.
California has 38 million residents in total.
The latest projections indicate the Hispanic population "will be even with the number of non-Hispanic whites by mid-2013," the Department of Finance said in a statement.
"Early in 2014, the Hispanic population will become the plurality in California for the first time since California became a state," the statement said.
Dowell Myers, professor of policy planning and demography at the University of Southern California who was not an author of the state report, said the demographic shift that will see Hispanics outnumber whites had already been expected to occur around 2015.
"The change is really slow; it's like two slow-moving cars on the freeway," Myers said.
By 2020, Hispanics will make up 40.8 percent of the California population and whites will comprise 36.6 percent, with Asians at 13.4 percent and black residents at 5.6 percent, according to the California Department of Finance Report.
The state's overall population will grow to 50 million in 2049, the report said. The state will also remain one of the younger U.S. states for the next two decades, due in part to its role as a main gateway for immigrants, the report added.
California Department of Finance reports on population projections are used by state and local governments to anticipate and plan for future needs. They are based on U.S. Census figures and state health department statistics.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)