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Opinion: No, California doesn’t have a population crisis

Californians keep hearing that our state has a population problem: Recent statistics from the Ministry of Finance show that from July 2021 to July 2022 we lost about 211,000 residents. This, on top of a larger drop between 2020 and 2021, has revived talk of an exodus as the state’s population has fallen by half a million people in two years.

Do we have to worry? Is California heading for demographic, economic and political stagnation?

As population scientists, we see a worrying impact on California’s rural counties — but overall, there are more opportunities in the relative youth of Californians and the state’s ability to attract immigrants than there are alarm bells.

Population changes are caused by two factors. The first, which demographers call “natural increase,” is the difference between births and deaths. From July 2021 to July 2022 there were 105,686 more Californians born than those who died. This modest population increase is unlikely to lead to significant growth in the future as births have occurred in California tends downwards.

The second driver of population is net migration: the number of people coming to a place, either from elsewhere in the country or from other countries, compared to the number leaving. Net migration is sometimes treated as a popularity contest. Governors brag about how great their state is because people “vote with their feet.” By this yardstick, California and New York are no longer the cool kids; people move to states like Florida, Texas and Georgia for cheaper housing, jobs and to join family (not necessarily for lower taxes). From 2021 to 2022, 316,668 more people left the state than those who arrived. After the 2020 census, for the first time in history, California lost a seat in the House of representatives. Texas won two chairs and Florida won one.

California’s largest recent lose population have been in Los Angeles County (113,048) and Santa Clara (16,553) and Alameda (15,959) counties in the Bay Area. That may seem to fit the general narrative that young families and knowledge-based economy professionals in major metropolitan areas are fleeing California. But these are also among the most populous counties in the state – in fact, these losses accounted for only about 1% of residents in each county. Fewer people putting pressure on housing, highways and energy may not be a bad thing in LA and the Bay Area.

On the contrary, as is the case all over the US, it is California’s small communities that are being eroded as young people leave and older residents die. Proportionately, the state’s largest population losses occurred in rural counties in the Sierra and the North Coast, including Lassen, Del Norte, Plumas, and Tuolumne. In these places, population loss means staff shortages or long journeys to health care, closed businesses and the feeling of being left behind.

A statewide convention – in rural, urban or suburban areas – is that low- and middle-income Californians most likely to leave. Those who move here tend to have higher incomes and education, underlining the state’s affordability problems.

But the age breakdown of California’s population tells a promising story. A major fear of population decline is that if people have fewer children while living longer, there will be fewer incomes (and thus taxpayers) to financially support and care for the elderly residents. The US faces this prospect: estimates the Congressional Budget Office that by 2042we will have more deaths than births nationally.

Californians already have that fewer babies than most people in the country. Yet the state’s population remains younger than the national average. Although the age of the average Californian increased slightly between 2011 and 2021 from 35.4 to 37.6it was still below the country’s average 38.8 years. California is aging, but most of us are under 40, with many years of job growth ahead.

California’s population story also varies by type of migrants entering or leaving the state. When it comes to domestic migrants — people moving from one U.S. state to another — California lost 406,982 residents between 2021 and 2022. But it is a different trajectory for international migrants who come from other countries. During that period, 90,314 more people came from abroad than the number of Californians who left the US

Our state has always taken in a significant portion of new immigrants. But in recent years, COVID lockdowns and Trump administration policies have slowed that growth. In 2020, net international migration to the US dropped to almost zero. In that year and in 2021, the US processed less permanent residence applications, few refugees entered the country and most of it visas for temporary migrants were curtailed or stopped. (An exception was the continued issuance of H-2A farm visas, which accounted for 32,000 workers in California in 2021.) Foreign-born residents made up a slightly smaller percentage of the state’s population in 2021 – about 26.6% – than a ten years earlier, when it was 27%.

Immigration numbers start to bounce back – and that’s a positive trend for California. It is useful in a tight job market, especially as foreign-born residents are much more likely to work than those born in the US and a boon to California’s tax base. In Canada, guest workers accounting for 84% of total labor force growth in the 2010s. The coming decades could well be characterized by global competition for migrant workers.

New immigrants to California last year largely settled around the Bay Area, Sacramento and Southern California. We need to support new immigrants to move to smaller communities that, due to population decline, can offer more opportunities. Canada’s immigration system, for example, does special programs to attract and welcome immigrants to more remote and less populated places.

While Congress ultimately controls immigration policy, California can take advantage of opportunities like the State Department’s new policy Program “Welcome Corps”., which allows a small group of individuals to sponsor refugees settling in their communities. Smaller California communities, the government says, can extend a “welcome hand to our Afghan allies, Ukrainians displaced by war, and Venezuelans and others fleeing violence and oppression.”

California does not have a population crisis. But if we want to promote growth, we must work to welcome more immigrants and lower the cost of living so that more people can stay.

Irene Bloemraad is the faculty director of the Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative and a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, where Ethan Roubenoff is a PhD student in demography.