George Skelton: California's population is on the rise. So much for the claims of the state's demise

George Skelton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Op Eds

It was bound to end. This is California, after all. Losing population defies our history. Now we're back growing again.

Yes, that's correct. California has resumed adding people after three years of shedding them.

Just last week, I reported that California residents were fleeing the state. They still are. But our numbers again are rising, based on updated Newsom administration data to be released around May 1.

What caused the turnaround?

Fewer people are now able to work remotely in other states, old people have quit dying at the extraordinary rate they were during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Biden administration has relaxed restrictions on legal immigration.

"These forces form the prime reasons for the return to positive population growth," state demographer Walter Schwarm told me in an email.

The new data will show that California's population, as of Jan. 1, has again climbed above 39 million, Schwarm said.

A week ago, I cited a recent U.S. Census Bureau estimate that California's population as of last July had fallen to 38,965,000. That was down by 75,400 in a year and 573,000 below California's peak of 39.5 million in 2020.

In 2000, we were predicted to reach 45 million by 2020 and almost 60 million by 2040. And why not? We'd been growing topsy-turvy since the Gold Rush and were by far the most populous state in the nation.

But people have been moving to other states in recent years.

The main reason is California's high living costs, especially for housing, researchers say. Homes are a lot cheaper almost anywhere else.

There are other reasons, too: High taxes. Homeless blight. Crime, especially at retail stores where customers worry about their safety.

Liberal politics also push out conservatives. They head to states like Idaho.

Some objected to Gov. Gavin Newsom's stay-at-home edict during the pandemic that closed classrooms, restaurants and shop — an edict he himself infamously disobeyed by attending a lobbyist friend's group birthday party at a ritzy wine country restaurant.

But one unique reason for departure to other states during the pandemic was that people found they could work there remotely for a California company and collect the same good salary while lowering their housing costs. That window is closing.

Businesses increasingly are requiring that their employees show up in person at least two or three times a week — so-called hybrid work. That's forcing people to stay in California and prompting more to move in.

"With hybrid work arrangements becoming more common in late 2022 and throughout 2023, the number of individuals moving to California once again increased to historical levels," Schwarm emailed.

And he added: "Those individuals moving to California are on average highly educated and earning commensurately higher levels of income."


Schwarm estimates that 26% of California employees were working at home in 2021. That percentage has been cut in half to slightly below 13% — and is falling.

Newsom last week ordered state employees to work in the office at least twice a week starting in June.

"The administration believes there are significant benefits to in-person work — enhanced collaboration, cohesion, communication, better opportunities for mentorship, particularly for workers newer to the workforce, and improved supervision and accountability," Cabinet Secretary Ann Patterson wrote in a memo to all departments.

About half of state workers already are coming to the office because their jobs require it, Patterson said, but the other half are in various forms of hybrid or full-time remote work.

"We are in a different place today as a society and as state agencies serving the public," she added in the memo.

Many private employers are ahead of Newsom on that thinking. They've been requiring at least hybrid work. And that has affected domestic migration.

More people still are moving out than moving in, but the gap is closing.

Last year, Schwarm says, roughly 91,000 more people left California than arrived from other states. But in 2022, the net loss was 170,000. And in the previous two pandemic years it was a total of 583,000.

Also contributing to population loss, lots of older people died of COVID during the pandemic. And young people haven't been producing babies like they used to.

Now, however, death rates are back to normal. Birth rates haven't risen. But there still were 117,500 more births than deaths last year, Schwarm said.

Former President Trump practically shut down foreign immigration — legal and illegal — during the pandemic. Visas were denied to reduce the virus' spread — and probably just because Trump didn't like a lot of the immigrants.

The New York Times quoted Trump telling financial backers at a recent political fundraiser: "These are people coming from prisons and jails. They're coming in from just unbelievable places and countries, countries that are a disaster. … Why can't we allow people to come in from nice countries … like Denmark, Switzerland?"

Schwarm said 42% of California's legal immigrants come from Asia and 38% from Central America. And 57% have at least a bachelor's degree. Last year, California gained more than 124,000 legal foreign immigrants,

There aren't good numbers on undocumented immigrants, the demographer says, but U.S. Department of Homeland Security data indicate that most asylum-seekers wind up in other states.

"We're growing for the first time in recent years," said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance that includes the demographic unit.

"It's not at the go-go levels seen in past decades. But it's a return to small levels of growth."

Hopefully it'll stay small. Forty million people in 2040 has a much better ring than 60 million.

©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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