SACRAMENTO — For the first time in more than a century, California recorded a net loss in population last year, a demographic reversal caused by the deadly toll of the coronavirus and declining immigration and birthrates.
The small but startling 0.46% drop — a decline in 2020 of 182,083 Californians, or the equivalent of about two Santa Barbaras — was reported on Friday by the state’s Finance Department. Most of the loss appeared to occur in the second half of 2020, during the worst of the pandemic, and after the April cutoff for the 2020 census.
H.D. Palmer, the department’s spokesman, said the state’s growth will likely rebound next year as the pandemic recedes and last year’s spike in COVID-19 deaths is no longer a factor.
“We’ll be back, maybe not to blazing growth rates, but at least to slightly positive growth,” said Palmer, who has advised the last four California governors on fiscal and budget policy.
“As more shots get into more Californians’ arms, COVID deaths will continue to decline, and we should also start seeing the effects of a changing immigration policy,” he added. “So when we do this same estimate this time next year, our demographers expect we’ll have returned to a slightly positive growth rate for 2021.”
Still, the downtick was a reality check for the nation’s most populous state.
In both the census and more studies of who is moving to and from the state, it has been clear for some time that the booming growth that has been a core feature of California’s identity since the Gold Rush has leveled off in the 21st century.
“This is a sea change,” said Hans Johnson, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. “Of course there is the asterisk — the effects of the pandemic — but the bigger picture, that California is now a slow-growing state, that’s not going away.”
Census figures released last month revealed some of the effects of the slowdown. For the first time in its 170-year history, California will lose a congressional seat, with the new population numbers from the 2020 census trimming its delegation in the House to 52 members.
But the census data indicated that California was still growing — it was just not growing as rapidly as the rest of the country. The data showing a population loss in 2020, released on Friday as part of the state’s regular economic reporting, offered a glimpse of the state’s trends beyond the census.
Palmer said the contraction was the first to be recorded by the state since 1900, when California began collecting population figures.
The state data showed that the population of 39,648,994 in January 2020 had dropped to 39,466,917 in January 2021. Interim numbers showed that although the population had continued to grow through the first months of the pandemic, the number of Californians dropped precipitously after July.
Palmer said more than half of that drop — roughly 100,000 people — was the result of federal policies that blocked international immigration and global lockdowns imposed to curb the pandemic, including restrictions on H-1B and other visas during the last year of the Trump administration.
Enrollment of international students in the state, for example, declined last year by 29%, Palmer said, as California colleges and universities pivoted to remote instruction. Some 53,000 fewer international students moved to the state last year, he said.
However, domestic migration was also a factor. For the past three decades, more people have left California each year than have moved in. The pandemic intensified that trend last year, Palmer said, prompting new employees in particular to work remotely and postpone moves they otherwise would have made into California.
A recent analysis of 2020 census data that was done by Johnson at the Public Policy Institute of California found that those who move in are “more likely to be working age, to be employed, and to earn high wages — and are less likely to be in poverty — than those who move away.” Numerically, however, the analysis found that 4.9 million people moved into California from other parts of the country, while 6.1 million Californians decamped to other states.
Within the state, work-from-home and remote study options also redistributed Californians, shifting the population from the coasts to inland counties last year. One of those inland counties, San Joaquin County in the Central Valley, grew last year by 1.3%, or more than 10,000 people. Another inland county in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Placer County, gained nearly 6,000 people, growing by 1.5%.
Population was also lost to the pandemic, which increased California’s overall death rate by 19% in 2020. Some 51,000 more lives were claimed last year than would have been normally, according to the state’s three-year average, Palmer said, including more than 17,000 excess deaths in Los Angeles County, where the death rate was 27% higher than average last year.
Driven by COVID-19, death rates rose in 51 of the state’s 58 counties, with a dozen reporting increases of 20% or higher. Deaths last year were 62% higher than usual in Imperial County, on the Mexican border. San Bernardino and Riverside counties, in Southern California’s Inland Empire, each reported more than 4,000 deaths in excess of their usual loss.
Declining birthrates — a nationwide trend that has been particularly acute in California — also slowed the natural increase in the population by some 24,000, Palmer said.
The average age of first birth in California has risen since 2010 from 28 to 31 as women have delayed motherhood, a function of improved employment prospects, higher living costs and the state’s higher levels of education. Fertility rates — defined as births per 1,000 women of childbearing age — have declined in California by more than twice the national average since 2010.
Johnson said the apparent shift is unlike contractions that have occurred elsewhere in the country.
“California is not a Rust Belt,” Johnson said. “We don’t have homes that are vacant and need to be demolished. We don’t have core parts of our cities reverting back to nature or parkland because no one lives there. It’s a very different kind of population loss than you’ve seen elsewhere in the country.”
But, he said, the high housing prices and income disparities that appear to be pricing the middle class out of the state will impact not only California, but the rest of the country.
“It could be,” he said, “that California is once again a bellwether. Maybe this is California leading again, in a new and different way.”
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