California population drops for first time in state’s recorded history

SACRAMENTO — California’s population declined in 2020 for the first time in the state’s recorded history due to Covid-19 deaths, federal immigration restrictions and declining births, state officials announced Friday.

The nation’s most populous state lost more than 180,000 people between January 2020 and January 2021, a decline of 0.46 percent, according to data released by the state Department of Finance. Though population growth has slowed dramatically in recent years, compounded by high costs of living and a housing shortage, this was the first time California experienced an actual annual drop since the state began recording such data in 1900, according to Finance spokesperson H.D. Palmer.

Census data last month showed that California experienced its lowest-ever growth rates in the last decade, resulting in the state losing a House seat for the first time.

“Much has been made of the California exodus, and rightly so. This migration, over the decades, has the power to reshape the state,” states a separate report by the Public Policy Institute of California released Thursday.

Opponents of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is facing a recall election, are sure to use the historic decline as proof of California’s woes. Republicans have long assailed the state’s regulations and tax rates as reasons to leave for red states, a point punctuated by the departure of Tesla CEO Elon Musk for Texas last year. Newsom critics in the past year have pointed to California’s pandemic restrictions and school closures as additional reasons to flee.

But state officials insisted Friday that the population decline is likely a blip due to the unprecedented pandemic, and that California is projected to return to “slight annual positive growth” when estimates are released next year.

The biggest loss of California residents in 2020 was due to a continued decline in foreign immigration into the state, “a direct impact” of the Trump administration’s suspension of some visas when the pandemic hit, according to the Department of Finance.

Declines in foreign immigration accounted for 100,000 less people living in California, according to the state. That includes 53,000 international students who remained home due to global restrictions.

Meanwhile, 51,000 Californians died of the coronavirus in 2020 — pushing the average death rate 19 percent higher than in preceding years.

The nationwide trend of declining birth rates also impacts California more than most states, resulting in a population drop of 24,000 as calculated by annual births minus deaths.

“In recent years, the slowdown in natural increase — a nationwide trend affecting California more than other states — has contributed to the state’s population growth slowing and plateauing. The addition of 2020’s COVID-19-related deaths, combined with immigration restrictions in the past year, tipped population change to an annual loss,” the Department of Finance said in a statement.

Otherwise, people are continuing to leave California.

In 28 of the last 30 years, the state has seen more people moving out than in, according to state officials. Since 2018, that outmigration has outpaced international migration into the state, leaving “natural increase,” or the difference between births and deaths, as the only source of population growth, the Department of Finance said.

The PPIC report threw cold water on the political narrative about California’s loss of fed-up wealthy residents, noting that people who move into the state continue to be wealthier and more educated than those who leave. Higher-income residents pay the bulk of California’s income and property taxes.

Research also shows that people left the state, or moved to cheaper parts of the state, to take advantage of telework in the pandemic.

Still, a high cost of living and a severe housing shortage continue to impact the state. The median price of a single-family home in California rose to a record $758,990 in March — up nearly 24 percent from the prior year. Meanwhile, lower-income workers bore the brunt of pandemic job losses as restaurants, tourism spots and service industries had to shut down. California’s seasonably adjusted unemployment rate in March was 8.3 percent, tied for third highest in the nation.

“People who move to California have higher incomes than those who move away. Some have argued that the opposite is taking place–that California’s relatively progressive and high personal income tax rates drive out higher-income residents. But the fact is that California has been losing lower- and middle-income residents to other states for some time while continuing to gain higher-income adults,” the report states.

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Families enjoy the hot weather on Santa Monica Beach in Santa Monica, Calif.
Families enjoy the hot weather on Santa Monica Beach in Santa Monica, Calif. | Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo

SACRAMENTO — California’s population declined in 2020 for the first time in the state’s recorded history due to Covid-19 deaths, federal immigration restrictions and declining births, state officials announced Friday.

The nation’s most populous state lost more than 180,000 people between January 2020 and January 2021, a decline of 0.46 percent, according to data released by the state Department of Finance. Though population growth has slowed dramatically in recent years, compounded by high costs of living and a housing shortage, this was the first time California experienced an actual annual drop since the state began recording such data in 1900, according to Finance spokesperson H.D. Palmer.

Census data last month showed that California experienced its lowest-ever growth rates in the last decade, resulting in the state losing a House seat for the first time.

“Much has been made of the California exodus, and rightly so. This migration, over the decades, has the power to reshape the state,” states a separate report by the Public Policy Institute of California released Thursday.

Opponents of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is facing a recall election, are sure to use the historic decline as proof of California’s woes. Republicans have long assailed the state’s regulations and tax rates as reasons to leave for red states, a point punctuated by the departure of Tesla CEO Elon Musk for Texas last year. Newsom critics in the past year have pointed to California’s pandemic restrictions and school closures as additional reasons to flee.

But state officials insisted Friday that the population decline is likely a blip due to the unprecedented pandemic, and that California is projected to return to “slight annual positive growth” when estimates are released next year.

The biggest loss of California residents in 2020 was due to a continued decline in foreign immigration into the state, “a direct impact” of the Trump administration’s suspension of some visas when the pandemic hit, according to the Department of Finance.

Declines in foreign immigration accounted for 100,000 less people living in California, according to the state. That includes 53,000 international students who remained home due to global restrictions.

Meanwhile, 51,000 Californians died of the coronavirus in 2020 — pushing the average death rate 19 percent higher than in preceding years.

The nationwide trend of declining birth rates also impacts California more than most states, resulting in a population drop of 24,000 as calculated by annual births minus deaths.

“In recent years, the slowdown in natural increase — a nationwide trend affecting California more than other states — has contributed to the state’s population growth slowing and plateauing. The addition of 2020’s COVID-19-related deaths, combined with immigration restrictions in the past year, tipped population change to an annual loss,” the Department of Finance said in a statement.

Otherwise, people are continuing to leave California.

In 28 of the last 30 years, the state has seen more people moving out than in, according to state officials. Since 2018, that outmigration has outpaced international migration into the state, leaving “natural increase,” or the difference between births and deaths, as the only source of population growth, the Department of Finance said.

The PPIC report threw cold water on the political narrative about California’s loss of fed-up wealthy residents, noting that people who move into the state continue to be wealthier and more educated than those who leave. Higher-income residents pay the bulk of California’s income and property taxes.

Research also shows that people left the state, or moved to cheaper parts of the state, to take advantage of telework in the pandemic.

Still, a high cost of living and a severe housing shortage continue to impact the state. The median price of a single-family home in California rose to a record $758,990 in March — up nearly 24 percent from the prior year. Meanwhile, lower-income workers bore the brunt of pandemic job losses as restaurants, tourism spots and service industries had to shut down. California’s seasonably adjusted unemployment rate in March was 8.3 percent, tied for third highest in the nation.

“People who move to California have higher incomes than those who move away. Some have argued that the opposite is taking place–that California’s relatively progressive and high personal income tax rates drive out higher-income residents. But the fact is that California has been losing lower- and middle-income residents to other states for some time while continuing to gain higher-income adults,” the report states.

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