California Grows at Slowest Rate Since 1900

Extremely light traffic moves along the 110 Harbor Freeway toward downtown mid afternoon, March 20, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

(CN) — The rate of population growth in California slowed to its lowest point since 1900, according to a demographic analysis released by the California Department of Finance on Wednesday. 

California’s population grew by 21,200 from July 1, 2019 to July 1, 2020, a growth rate of about 0.05 percent, even smaller than the previous lowest rate of 0.23 percent that occurred the year before. 

“Those numbers are really startling,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. “This isn’t the Golden State of the past, which was a place in which we saw people from other states and abroad coming to find their way to the California dream.”

Once identified as the land of plenty, California has become increasingly difficult for low-income people who struggle to cope with the high cost of living in coastal regions of the state, while high-income individuals flee the high taxes and intense regulations. 

Elon Musk and Larry Ellison recently grabbed headlines after they announced they are fleeing the Golden State for Texas and Hawaii, respectively. 

While economic drivers are one part of the story, according to the Department of Finance, the coronavirus pandemic also created barriers to migration into the state during the period.

“It’s an open question whether the coastal to inland moves in California have more to do with affordability and lifestyle changes or whether it truly is a few months of Covid movement and the new telework environment,” said California’s chief demographer Walter Schwarm. 

California’s 10 largest counties by population — including urban coastal counties like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Diego and Orange Counties — lost population during the period, even though international migration to these places was positive. 

“Only Fresno, Riverside, and Sacramento counties had positive population growth from net migration,” the department said. “It is the first time this decade where a majority of these large counties reported loss in net domestic migration.”

Sacramento and Riverside Counties received the most migration inflow, mostly from international migration in the case of Sacramento County, when studying the top 10 counties by population. Riverside gained 20,364 for the largest population gain in terms of numeric change. Sacramento County saw an influx of 13,302.

By contrast, Los Angeles County lost 40,036 people during the period, by far the largest numeric drop of the 58 counties that comprise California. Percentage-wise, the biggest drop in population belonged to Butte County, home to Chico and Paradise, where the Camp Fire ripped through in 2018, displacing hundreds of residents. 

“I think Butte is still a wildfire related loss,” Schwarm said, noting that the population loss in that county has been steady since 2018. 

Butte County only lost 8,115 people but it represented a 3.82% drop in population. No other county was above a 1.65% drop and only Plumas and Sutter — two other counties ravaged by wildfire — were above 1%. 

The largest gain by percentage was in El Dorado County, a mostly rural county that touches the southwestern part of Lake Tahoe, where adding 3,210 people was enough to create a 1.71% increase. 

“El Dorado County reflects more of the telework factor than affordability,” Schwarm said. 

Only El Dorado, Glenn, Yuba, San Benito and Merced Counties posted population gains of above 1%. Those counties are mostly rural. Sacramento County, the urban county with the largest percentage gain, posted a .87% increase in population during the period. 

“Glenn and Yuba counties received additional population due to shifts related to the Camp Fire in Butte County in 2018,” the report states. “El Dorado is the highest growth county where the only source of growth was net migration.”

The population estimates are reached by aggregating data from birth and death counts provided by the California Department of Public Health, along with driver’s license information including address change data from the Department of Motor Vehicles. 

Schwarm said the data may be noisier this year due to delays in DMV processes because of the pandemic. The department also uses housing data from local governments, school enrollment data from the California Department of Education and data from the federal government including tax return data. 

“This year will probably require a bigger revision than we normally do,” Schwarm said. 

Nevertheless, the demographer is confident that the trends of migration out of California, and within the state from the coastal areas to the more affordable inland areas are a continuation of patterns that have held for several years. 

“The biggest takeaway is that it’s a very slow growth rate,” he said. 

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