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Dan Walters: California population drop caps long trend

Dan Walters: California population drop caps long trend


California and national news organizations went a little berserk recently when the state Department of Finance announced that the state’s estimated population declined a bit in 2020.

The overwrought articles made much of California’s having lost population for the first time in recorded history, with multiple references to the state’s reputation for steady — and sometimes spectacular — population growth since statehood was achieved in 1850 and its loss of one congressional seat.

Apparently, those who treated the population numbers as an apocalyptic revelation hadn’t been paying attention because California had been heading toward zero or even negative population growth for at least a quarter-century, as those of us who track demographic trends had often noted.

In fact, the Census Bureau last December estimated that during the 2019-20 fiscal year that ended last June 30, the state’s population had declined — a report largely ignored by the state’s media.

The latest media coverage also overemphasized the role that the COVID-19 played in the state’s population decline. The overall loss was pegged at 182,083 and pandemic-related deaths were responsible for a little over a quarter of that decline.

In other words, even if COVID-19 had not reared its ugly head, California would still have lost population due to long-term demographic trends — declining births, increasing deaths due to the aging of the population, a much-slowed rate of foreign immigration, and losses in state-to-state migrations.

California has been a net loser in the latter factor for at least two decades, with more people moving to other states — Texas the No. 1 destination — than we gain from other states.

The Public Policy Institute of California delved into that phenomenon just a few days before the Department of Finance released its new population numbers.

“During the 2010s about 6.1 million people moved from California to other states, while only 4.9 million people moved to California from other parts of the country,” PPIC reported.

“People who move to California are different from those who move out. In general, those who move here are more likely to be working age, to be employed, and to earn high wages — and are less likely to be in poverty — than those who move away.

“Those who move to California also tend to have higher education levels than those who move out, an especially important factor given the state’s strong need for college graduates. Notably, this gain in educated residents is concentrated among young college graduates (generally, adults in their 20s) looking for opportunities as they start their careers.”

Between 2010 and 2019, PPIC calculated from federal census data, California had a net gain of 154,500 adults with college educations from other states, and net loss of 777,400 with high school educations or less. Superficially, that appears to be a positive exchange, but it should be troubling because the state has a chronic shortage of skilled blue-collar workers.

While, as PPIC notes, California’s high housing costs are a big factor in pushing people out of the state, a lack of construction workers is a major factor in our inability to build enough housing. The syndrome also applies to many other blue-collar fields that are vital to our daily lives, such as auto mechanics.

Demographics, it’s been said, are destiny. Whether California is gaining or losing population is less important than whether we will continue to evolve into a highly stratified society with a relatively small, but very affluent, overclass, a shrinking middle class, and a huge underclass mired in structural poverty.

California has gone from having the worst infection rate in the United States to the lowest infection rate. At its peak, California was recording around 40,000 new COVID-19 cases a day and over 500 deaths. In the past week, one in every 2,416 people in California has tested positive for the virus. According to Johns Hopkins University, the state has the lowest average number of cases per capita in the past two weeks. All counties in California have improved enough to move out of the strictest level of the state’s four-tier reopening plan. Just over half of the 32 million California residents eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine have received at least their first dose. Governor Gavin Newsom hopes to lift most of the remaining COVID-19 restrictions currently in place in California by June 15.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to


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