The exodus from California shows no signs of slowing down as the state’s population fell by more than 500,000 between April 2020 and July 2022, with the number of residents departing outnumbering residents by nearly 700,000.
The population decline was second only to New York, which lost about 15,000 more people than California, census data show.
California has been seeing population declines for years, with the COVID-19 pandemic pushing even more people to move to other parts of the country, experts say. The main reason for the exodus is the state’s high housing costs, but other reasons include long commutes and crowding, crime and pollution in the larger urban centers. The increased ability to work remotely – and not have to live near a major city – has also been a factor.
The pace of the exodus may slow now as the effects of the pandemic wear off, but some experts say it could be a few years before the Golden State begins to register the kind of population growth it has seen in the past.
The census data points to those states that have seen population growth even as California’s has shrunk.
Net migration from California surpassed that of the next highest state, New York, at about 143,000 people. Nearby states such as Utah have tried to discourage Californians from moving there. A similar story is playing out in Nevada, where migrants from California are trying to recreate their lifestyle.
California gained about 157,000 more people through natural change—the difference in numbers between births and deaths—than New York, increasing New York’s overall population loss.
During the last year of the two-year period, from July 2021 to July 2022, California lost about 211,000 people, according to Treasury Department data. More than half – 113,048 – came from Los Angeles County, the most populous of California’s 58 counties.
The province had lost about 160,000 people in the past 12 months, with almost all of the population loss caused by internal migration.
Much of California’s net migration was “people seeking refuge during the pandemic” with parents or friends, leading people “to leave the central cities,” said Dowell Myers, a professor of policy, planning and demography at USC.
Even as the pandemic has eased, young people continue to leave California, he said.
The state “still attracts them but can’t hold them very well,” Myers said, noting that many young people come in as renters and then leave the state for lower housing prices elsewhere.
“People who leave are much more likely to be homeowners after they leave,” he explains.
He suggested that more immigration, more births and falling house prices should boost the state’s population. “The clock is ticking for millennials,” he said of those who have waited to have children, often because of housing pressures and the cost of living.
“People tend to have more babies when they’re optimistic,” Myers said.
Myers said he believes “the annual change will be much closer to zero” by 2023 than the hundreds of thousands of people lost over the past two years, and “should turn positive by 2024.”
Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA, also pointed to economic, health and socio-political factors driving people to leave the state. He noted that housing prices in California have prompted many to move to states where costs are lower.
“While salaries are lower in other regions and states, the cost of housing is even lower,” he said. “This means that they have a higher standard of living because of more disposable income and/or a higher probability of ownership.”
His research found that the majority of departures in Los Angeles County came from the city of Los Angeles.
“There is a quick, clear and sharp spike during the pandemic,” he said of the net loss of population in the city. People moved “away from the denser urban core, where COVID-19 risk was considered higher. Remote working also contributed to this migration.”
Ong noted that population loss has slowed since its peak in 2020, but there is “no net profit to offset the pandemic losses.”
Alex Stack, a spokesman for Governor Gavin Newsom, commissioned The Times to collect data on the net loss by the total state population. Between July 2021 and July 2022, California ranked 10th in population decline.
However, a Times analysis of that same data from April 2020 to July 2022 showed that even when scaled to total population, California’s percentage decline was the fourth largest in the country, behind New York, Illinois and Louisiana.
While California’s population has been shrinking, some of the country’s most populous states have been adding people at a significant rate.
The states with the highest population growth between April 2020 and July 2022 were Texas and Florida, which gained about 884,000 and 707,000 people, respectively.