Two Demographic Firsts, Both Losses, for California

The nation's most populous state learned from the Census Bureau last month that it would lose a congressional district for the first time in its history. On Friday, it revealed that 2020 was the first year since 1850 to experience a population loss.

May 10, 2021, 8:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid


Los Angeles, California

Maria_Ermolenko / Shutterstock

A year ago, Planetizen posted 2019 demographic year-end data released by the California government on May 1, 2020:

The Golden State grew by 87,494 residents last year, an increase of 0.2 percent from 2018, bringing the total estimated population to 39,782,870 as of January 1st, 2020, according to demographic data released by the Demographic Research Unit [pdf] of the California Department of Finance.

The 2020 calendar year population estimates were released by the state on May 7. From the press release, "State Population Dips To 39.5 Million Per New State Demographic Report" [pdf]:

California’s population dipped by 182,083 residents last year, bringing the state’s total to 39,466,855 people as of January 1, 2021, according to new population estimates and housing data released today by the California Department of Finance.

California’s negative growth rate of -0.46 percent represents the first 12-month decline since state population estimates have been recorded.

Pandemic toll

The research unit listed three reasons for the population loss, the most profound being the toll the pandemic had taken on the lives of its residents, the highest in the nation: "Deaths in 2020 separately associated with the COVID-19 pandemic (loss of 51,000)."

Deaths attributed to the coronavirus top 61,000 as of May 9, according to the California Department of Public Health, about 10.6 percent of the nation's total of over 578,000, according to the CDC.

A decline in "natural increase" was noted in the first bullet: a loss of 24,000 people determined by subtracting births from "non-COVID-19 deaths." Turns out the pandemic had a hand in that as well. [See CalMatters: "California life cycle: Record high deaths, record low births," March 21, 2021.]

The biggest population loss resulted in part from a Trump administration policy as well as from reduced travel due to the pandemic. "Continuing declines in foreign immigration – accelerated in recent years by federal policy (loss of 100,000)."

What about domestic migration?

The press release did not include domestic migration data. Ben Christopher of the nonprofit journalism venture, CalMatters, reported on that aspect of the demographic data in the source article that was explicitly noted in the title, "don't call it an exodus."

The number of Californians who have left the state for more affordable corners of the union has also been a drag on the state’s head count for three decades. That “net-domestic outmigration” exceeded the number of new immigrants from around the world for the first time in 2018, according to Department of Finance estimates.

Department of Finance spokesperson H.D. Palmer went out of his way to stress that Californians packing it up for Texas and Colorado are not the primary cause of the state’s striking population decline.

“Some people who run with statistical scissors will try to extrapolate or hyperventilate that this is evidence of some sort of ‘Mad Max’ style ‘exodus’ from California and that is not the case,” he said.

Recall politics

As if on cue, Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego and now a prominent Republican candidate hoping to replace Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in the upcoming recall election, tweeted:

The numbers don’t lie. People are leaving our state because it’s not affordable to live here. One party rule has made it almost impossible to raise a family.

"But a new analysis from the Public Policy Institute of California says the state remains as attractive as ever for the well-off," adds Christopher. The analysis was released the day before the Finance Department issued its population estimates.

It’s people in the working and middle classes who are leaving, largely due to high housing and other costs. “In the past five years the flow of middle-income residents out of the state has accelerated,” wrote Hans Johnson, a demographer with the institute. 

Additional reading on the first-ever population decline in California, all published on May 7:

Census winners and losers

California was the only state not in the Midwest or Mid-Atlantic that will lose a congressional district next year as a result of the 2020 Census apportionment data released on April 26 (see related blog post, "3 Takeaways From 2020 Census Apportionment Data").

The other six states that will each lose one congressional representative:

  • Three Mid-Atlantic states: New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia
  • Three Mid-Western states: Ohio, Illinois, Michigan

The six winners:

  • Texas gained two seats
  • Southern states: Florida and North Carolina each gained one seat
  • Western states: Oregon, Montana and Colorado gained one seat

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