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California’s persistently shrinking population — and the reasons why

A boy takes in the view of the Los Angeles skyline from the Griffith Park Observatory Trails Peak in Los Angeles on Nov. 14, 2022.
Jae C. Hong
AP Photo
A boy takes in the view of the Los Angeles skyline from the Griffith Park Observatory Trails Peak in Los Angeles on Nov. 14, 2022.

In 2021, it was big news — the “California exodus.” Now, it just looks like the new trend: California’s population is still shrinking.

According to the latest population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, California’s total population declined by more than 500,000 between April 2020 and July 2022.

Put another way, 1 out of 100 people living in California at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic had, two years later, left the state — either by U-Haul or by hearse.

Where’d they all go?

  • Some died, though there were far more births;
  • Some left the country, though on net, more immigrants arrived;
  • The major driving factor: Californians departing for other states. 

Just counting out-of-staters coming in and Californians leaving, the state’s population saw a 871,127 net decline. If you’re wonderingwhy the state lost a congressional seat at the beginning of this decade, this is why.

This isn’t a national problem. It’s a California, New York, Illinois and Louisiana problem. California is one of only 18 states that saw its numbers decline and had the fourth biggest drop as a share of its population.

Topping the list of rapid growers are other Western states that aren’t on the pricey coast: Idaho, Montana and Utah.

That may be why Utah Gov. Spencer Cox recently pleaded with Californians to stay put rather than come as “refugees to Utah.”

  • UCLA economist Paul Ong: “While salaries in other regions and states are lower, the cost of housing is even lower.”

But not all of California is shrinking at the same rate. And no surprise, housing seems to be the key explanation why. ASan Francisco Chronicle analysis of local population changes between 2010 and 2020 found that the fastest growing city in California was the East Bay bedroom community of Dublin, which permitted four-times as many new housing units per person as nearby San Francisco.

But as California lawmakers grapple with the housing and homelessness crisis, a familiar clash is emerging between state and local lawmakers:

More housing conflict: Remember when San Francisco Sen. Scott Wienerintroduced a bill earlier this week that would require any developer who wants to make use of a particular housing law to pay their workers union-level wages — but stopped short of forcing developers to hire union members?

In anideological divide between the state building trades union and the carpenters, that put Wiener squarely with the carpenters.

On Thursday, the trades responded. They aren’t impressed.

  • Trades President Andrew Meredith, in a statement: “Proponents’ attempts to paint this as an affordable housing play are disingenuous. This is clearly all about putting more money in developer pockets.”

Housing and inequality: And in many places in California, high housing costs are a driver of the gap between rich and poor.

Though the tech industry has laid offnearly 95,000 workers since the beginning of the year, Silicon Valley still represents one of the country’s highest pinnacles of wealth. Households across the region hold an estimated total of $1.1 trillion in cash and other “investable” assets. But some households have far more than others.

A new report shows the vast disparity in Silicon Valley: The top 1% hold a third of those assets, which don’t include homes, whereas the bottom half own a mere 1%, writes CalMatters California Divide reporter Alejandro Lazo. Just eight ultra-rich households held more cash wealth than the bottom 50% (nearly 500,000 households) in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.