Why California’s Growth Has Slowed (and Why Demographers Aren’t Surprised)

For generations, California has been America’s boomtown writ large, with a population that nearly doubled to some 40 million in the last four decades alone.

California remains the nation’s most populous state, an immense, churning window into a majority-minority national future. But new data from the Census Bureau released on Monday confirms what demographers have suspected for years.

The boom is gone.

Dampened by declining birthrates and federal policies that drastically slowed immigration, California’s population increase of 6.1 percent over the past decade was the smallest in at least a century and less than the 7.4 percent national average, according to the census.

For the first time in its 170-year history, the state will lose a congressional seat, with the new numbers trimming its delegation in the House to 52 members.

“We are at a tipping point,” said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the State Department of Finance.

Mr. Palmer stressed, however, that the new census data reflected not a mass departure but a shortage of new Californians — the result of postponed parenthood and blocked immigration.

Texas and other large Sun Belt states gained seats in Congress based on the new census numbers. But California officials and other experts said they were not alarmed, noting that several other large states lost seats, including New York and Pennsylvania. California’s congressional delegation remains by far the nation’s largest, and many noted that the issue was the pace of the state’s growth and not a decrease of its overall population over the past decade.

Some also speculated that the pandemic may have artificially depressed census participation, although the state spent more than $187 million on outreach.

“People who have a partisan ax to grind will no doubt use this to fuel the fiction that there is some kind of apocalyptic exodus from California,” Mr. Palmer said, laughing. “But from a data standpoint, that is not the case.”

Here are some of the reasons the state’s growth has slowed, and why Mr. Palmer and other experts say California may be entering a new demographic phase.

Younger generations are waiting to have families.

Birthrates have steadily fallen in California since the aftermath of World War II, when the baby boom first sent the state’s population soaring. According to state data, births have declined by more than 15 percent in the past decade.

The average age of first birth in California rose from 28 in 2010 to 31 by 2019, a function of living costs, employment prospects and the state’s higher levels of education.

But California’s baby bust since the last census has also been more acute than in the rest of the country. Take the fertility rate, which demographers typically define as births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44.

Nationally, that rate fell from 64.1 in 2010 to 58.3 in 2019 — a loss of 5.8 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. In California, however, the decline was 11.7 births. By comparison, the fertility rate in Florida dropped by fewer than four births.

California’s baby boomers have aged.

In addition to lower birthrates, higher death rates have contributed to the slower population growth in California.

Driven largely by aging baby boomers, deaths — not counting those from Covid-19 — have increased by more than 10 percent in the state over the past decade.

Older adults have outpaced growth in children or working-age adults to become the state’s fastest-growing age group. The state projects that by 2030, more than nine million Californians will be over 65.

Housing is increasingly expensive in the state.

The cost of housing is one of the state’s signature challenges. Lisa Hershey, the executive director of Housing California, estimates the state is short at least 1.2 million units of affordable housing. The median price for a single-family home in California hit a record $758,990 in March, according to state figures, up 24 percent from a year ago.

In 2017, according to state figures, 1.7 percent of California’s population moved to other parts of the nation, and 1.3 percent of the population moved to California from other states. In 2019, 1.7 percent moved to other states while 1.0 percent moved in.

Critics of the state’s governance often contend that its system of taxation, which leans heavily on high earners, has driven out wealthy Californians. But research has shown that lower-income families are the ones departing.

“The people who are leaving the state are the people who can’t afford to live here,” Ms. Hershey said.

Immigration slowed, especially during the Trump administration.

Though a majority of Californians were born in the United States, more than a quarter of residents have come from other countries. For most of the decade, immigration more than made up for the loss of Californians deciding to move to other states.

In the past several years, however, that stream of newcomers slowed markedly.

Immigration represented between 0.4 and 0.5 percent of California’s annual population increase through the first half of the decade, according to Mr. Palmer. But starting in 2017, when former President Donald J. Trump took office, that began to decline, to less than 0.1 percent last year.

Among the policies that depressed immigration, state officials said, were the Trump administration’s decision to sharply limit or delay applications for asylum and visas. Historically, California has been home to about 30 percent of the nation’s asylum population, as well as hundreds of thousands of workers on H-1B visas.

“Because we are a global destination state,” Mr. Palmer said, “what happens in immigration affects us disproportionately.”

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