SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s population fell by more than 182,000
last year, the first yearly loss ever recorded for the nation’s most
populous state that halted a growth streak dating to its founding in 1850
on the heels of a gold rush that prompted a flood of people to seek their
fortune in the West.
The figures released Friday followed last week's announcement from the
U.S. Census Bureau that California would lose a congressional seat for the
first time because it grew more slowly than other states over the past
decade. Still, California's population of just under 39.5 million and
soon-to-be 52-member congressional delegation remain by far the largest.
California's population has surged and slowed in the decades since its
founding, with notable increases following World War II and the tech boom
of the 1980s and '90s that put Silicon Valley on the map.
In recent years, more people have left California for other states than
have moved there, a trend Republicans say is a result of the state's high
taxes and progressive politics. The average sale price of a single-family
home in California hit a record $758,990 in March, a 23.9 percent increase
from a year ago.
“The numbers don't lie. People are leaving our state because it's not
affordable to live here,” tweeted Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San
Diego and one of the Republican candidates hoping to unseat Democratic
Gov. Gavin Newsom in this year's expected recall election.
But the Newsom administration says California's population decline is an
outlier, blaming it on the coronavirus pandemic that turned everything
upside down in 2020.
California has been steadily losing people to other states for years. From
2010 to 2020, about 6.1 million people left for other states and only 4.9
million arrived from other parts of the country, according to an analysis
of census data by the Public Policy Institute of California.
But the influx of international immigrants and births outpacing deaths
have always been enough to overcome that loss. That changed in 2020.
In a normal year, California might have between 140,000 and 150,000 people
move in from other countries. In 2020, it was just 29,000 people — a
direct impact, state officials say, of the Trump administration halting
new visas for much of the year.
Global lockdowns because of the coronavirus prompted a 29 percent decline
in international students coming to California, or about 53,000 people.
Births continued their steady decline, mirroring a national trend. But
deaths soared as the coronavirus killed 51,000 people in California last
year, accounting for a 19 percent increase of the state's death rate
compared to the previous three-year average.
“If it were not for the pandemic last year, we might be having a very
different conversation today,” said Walter Schwarm, California’s chief
The deaths were more pronounced in the state's most populated cities,
including Los Angeles, which saw a 27 percent increase over its three-year
average. Overall, Los Angeles lost nearly 52,000 people, the third
straight year of decline that has put its population at just over 3.9
Eric McGhee, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California,
said the state's population decline is “largely a function of the
pandemic.” He says the state will likely return to its trend of slow
growth this year as things return to normal.
But he said the underlying issues causing that slow growth will remain,
including a housing shortage that is driving prices to an all time high. A
recent PPIC analysis of census data showed people moving to California
make more money and had higher education levels than people who moved out.
“The thing that policy makers have the most control over probably is
creating an environment where life is affordable,” he said.
The state's four most populated cities — L.A., San Diego, San Jose and San
Francisco — lost a combined 88,000 people in 2020. Meanwhile, major inland
cities including Sacramento, Fresno and Bakersfield added population,
evidence of people fleeing high-priced coastal cities for cheaper living.
Population estimates released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau showed
paltry growth in California. But those numbers showed California's
population as of April 2020. The numbers the state released Friday reflect
California's population as of January 2021.
The state's population estimate comes from a number of sources, including
birth and death counts, the number of new driver's licenses and address
changes, school enrollments and federal tax returns.
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