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California population growth slowest since 1900 as residents leave, immigration decelerates

“For some years after the Great Recession housing crunch, California was losing domestic migrants — but not as much as it could have. Now that’s starting to push up again,”

The Golden State remains stuck in the slow lane when it comes to population.

The number of Californians increased to 39.96 million, with new data from the Department of Finance showing mostly downward trends.

They are rooted in fewer births, coupled with increased deaths among an aging population. The Golden State, however, has also seen changes in international migration, along with more and more residents leaving the state.

The estimates, which indicate that California’s population grew by 141,300 people between July 1, 2018, and July 1, 2019, nonetheless signal a 0.35% growth rate, “down from 0.57% for the prior 12 months — the two lowest recorded growth rates since 1900,” department officials underscored

According to the agency, natural increase (with 452,200 births and 271,400 deaths) accounted for an additional 180,800 people to the state. Still, these gains were offset by losses in net migration — that is, the total amount of people moving into the state minus the total amount of people moving out.

Notably, said Eddie Hunsinger, a demographer with the Department of Finance, even though the net international migration added to the state’s population, there was substantial negative domestic net migration, which resulted in a loss of 39,500 residents. This, said the department, marks “the first time since the 2010 Census that California has had more people leaving the state than moving in from abroad or other states.”

William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Friday’s findings follow a trend that demographers have seen over several years. While California has always seen domestic outmigration — people moving to other states — the rate has grown over the last decade.

“For some years after the Great Recession housing crunch, California was losing domestic migrants — but not as much as it could have. Now that’s starting to push up again,” Frey said.

The most common destinations for those leaving the state were Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Texas and Washington, he said, as the economy has picked up throughout the west and other parts of the country. Aside from a lower cost-of-living, some Californians are drawn to areas with no state income tax.

One key contributor to the decline in growth is the dip in immigration levels, Frey added. Although California is still home to a large percentage of the nation’s immigrants, that number has declined.

“In the past, California would be growing because immigration would counteract domestic outmigration,” he said. “The outmigration is in places where housing prices are high and therefore immigration is not being able to counter that.”

In Los Angeles County, the region saw overall outmigration even when counting the influx of immigrants. Orange, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara and San Diego counties also had negative net migration, even with gains from immigration.

“California was the place, the big destination, for people around the country and around the world,” he said. “It’s lost its luster a little bit. The question is whether it’s short-term or long-term. I think the jury is still out. To me, it’s kind of a stunner to see that California is losing migrants. The land of dreams and the gold rush and all that, now turned the other direction.”

Frey said the decline in growth could have implications during the 2020 census count and the ensuing apportionment that is based on census figures.

“It’s something to be concerned about,” he said. “California could be on the cusp of losing a seat if it doesn’t show up with a decent count.”

In an email to The Times, demographer Hunsinger countered that “the estimates are for current and historical information (rather than the future).”

There were also some notable internal shifts. Within the state, smaller counties in remote areas either saw population declines or slight increases, with the exception of regions surrounding Butte County site of the 2018 Camp fire — the deadliest in California history. It destroyed the town of Paradise and, in addition to killing 86 people, displaced some 35,700 residents.

According to the Department of Finance, the bulk of those affected by the fire relocated to nearby cities in Butte or surrounding counties, including Colusa, Glenn, Plumas, Sutter, Tehama and Yuba. Four of these counties, in fact, were listed among the top 10 with the highest population growth rates. Beyond these exceptions, however, the statewide rate of population growth is shrinking .

Dowell Myers, an expert in demographics at USC, said the population growth in California has been slowing down for three years. The state recovered from the recession he said, but as things have “perked up” in California, not everyone has felt the benefits.

“Jobs are getting better, but people’s recovery has turned around and gone bad,” Myers said. “I think because of housing prices. The peak millennial is turning 30 in 2020. It’s a pivotal moment and they can’t find housing. So people aren’t coming as much, and they’re leaving here more.”

Myers noted that a big part of the lack of growth is the decline in birth rates — something he attributes to young couples’ inability to “find a nest,” or affordable housing, where they would want to raise children.

“People need to feel secure in having housing before they can start a family, " Myers said. “Other people won’t come because they have heard the news.”

He added: “We better get our act together pretty darn quick. This is as good as it’s going to get. People should be flourishing. The fact that the number of babies is going down is really worrisome.”

Los Angeles County saw a 17% decline in the amount of children in the area over the last decade, Myers said.

“We are worse off and we have the best economy,” he said.

“It’s not sustainable,” Myers added. “I think we need to have enough housing for workers to live in and for people to start families. Older people have the right to stay in their houses, but we need to make room for the young people or else we will turn into a retirement city by the sea.”

Julia Barajas is a Los Angeles Times reporter and a native Angeleno. Before joining The Times, she covered the impact of changing drug policies in California and Latin America for Cannabis Wire. Her work has also appeared in La Opinión, La Prensa Gráfica and the Columbia Journalism Review. After graduating from the University of Chicago, she earned a master’s in education from Cal State Long Beach, as well as a master’s in journalism from Columbia University.

Sarah Parvini covers California’s demographics and diverse communities for the Los Angeles Times’ Metro desk.

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