Among the reasons California’s population has declined is the possibility of people working from other states where they can spend less on housing. (Illustration: Jeff Durham/Bay Area News Group)
The headline number was eye-opening: About 725,000 people moved from California in 2020 to establish a new life in one of the other 49 states or in Washington, D.C.
If that were the end, the number, derived from Internal Revenue Service migration data for 2021, would have represented the largest one-year exodus in state history.
But it was not the end. While experts say the reasons are more subtle than single-year gross output, California’s population has been steadily declining since 2020. Recent state data shows California’s population today is just under 39 million, after flirting with 40 million just four years ago.
Lots of other new data shows where people are going (Texas, Idaho and Florida, as well as neighboring Arizona and Nevada). Survey reports show who is leaving (higher-income, well-educated workers have only recently begun to join a migration pattern that has traditionally been dominated by low-income people). And yet other data shows that at least some of the financial and social challenges troubling California—rising home prices, stagnant wages, crime—are not all that different in the states that attract the most former Californians.
“I didn’t think I would miss it. And in many ways he was right; I don’t,” said laughing Debbie Higbee, who last year moved from Burbank to Boise, Idaho, with her husband and their three children.
“But I’m also not one of those people who hate California,” he added. “I really don’t understand all that.
“For me, it’s fine there. And it’s not like things are perfect here either. Both places have good and bad things.
Blip or trend?
That exodus of 725,000 people was a frontline number, not a network. But California’s actual internal migration in 2020, with the state losing about 331,000 more people than it gained back from the other states, was encouraging, even for people who closely follow these things.
“Yeah, that was great,” said political scientist Eric McGhee, a senior fellow at the California Public Policy Institute and co-author of a blog on state politics, demographics and other California population issues.
But McGhee, echoing others studying California, was quick to add: “It wasn’t surprising. For at least the last 30 years, California has exported more people to other states than we have imported.”
In fact, McGhee’s blog tracked the data month by month last year and found that, from July 2021 to July 2022, California lost about 407,000 people to other states, almost certainly the largest such change in history. state history.
“There have been a handful of years in the last few decades where we had a net gain, but the typical result is that we lose people,” McGhee said.
But, in most years, it has also been typical for outbound internal migration to be offset by inbound international immigration, with more people moving to California from around the world than moving to Texas and Idaho and the like. That was not the case in 2020.
And, in most years, the state’s population has not been surprised by a pandemic-induced rise in deaths and a corresponding drop in births. And, most years, thousands of employers in the state did not impose mass layoffs for a relatively short period of time, then rehire at a dizzying pace, and eventually decided to let millions of workers do their jobs from home, no matter what. where they will meet could be. All of that happened in the first year of the pandemic.
Bottom line: Not only did California’s population grow more slowly in 2020 than before, it actually shrank by nearly 359,000. That happened again in 2021, when California dropped by 114,000 people.
Then the pandemic ended, but California’s population decline did not.
According to data released this month by the California Department of Finance, the contraction continued last year, with the state losing about 139,000 people. State officials now estimate California’s population at approximately 38,940,231, the first time it has been below 39 million since 2015.
All of which begs a question: Blip or trend?
“The state projects that growth will resume,” McGhee said.
In the past year, immigration has started to rise and deaths from the pandemic have fallen. But birth rates still haven’t fully recovered, and a rise in something once unexpected — office workers telecommuting from out of state — has caused growing numbers of former Californians, like Higbee and his family, be even more important.
“Net domestic migration offset population gains from natural increase and international migration,” the California Department of Finance wrote in its May 1 state population report.
That said, as McGhee pointed out, the state has projected that population growth will resume next year, and that by 2030 the population could exceed 42 million.
“We’ll see,” McGhee said.
Several years of surveys by the Public Policy Institute and others have found that people who move from California offer similar reasons: home prices, family, and employment.
And, for many conservatives, politics.
A PPIC poll last year found that 56% of people who said they disapproved of Gov. Gavin Newsom also said they wanted to move out of California, versus 28% of Newsom supporters who said the same. That reflects what has been happening nationally for much of this century, as people move to be close to people of similar political beliefs, a trend some demographers call “the big guy.”
However, the “move to” data suggests that politics is a motive for some, but not all.
The 2020 IRS immigration report found that the most popular state for former Californians, by far, is conservative Texas. It also found that Deep Red Idaho ranked fourth among former Californians and Florida currently ranked fifth.
But the second biggest draw was Arizona, which voted for Democrat Joe Biden in 2020 and is generally considered a mixed state politically. Same for third place Nevada (also mixed, politically). Additionally, the only three counties nationally that drew more than 1,000 Californians in 2020: Maricopa County, Arizona (Phoenix), Clark County, Nevada (Las Vegas), and King County, Washington (Seattle), all have more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Higbee, who moved from Burbank to Boise last year, said politics had nothing to do with his move.
“I’m not really a fan of politics here. He is a bit crazy. But I wasn’t always a fan of politics in California, either,” he said.
“I wish it wasn’t a thing at all.”
Instead, Higbees’ move was due to housing prices and because her husband would be able to keep his job by working from home as long as he travels back to California once a quarter.
Data shows that the median home price for April in new Higbee County, Ada, Idaho, was $492,000, compared with about $1.1 million in his old hometown of Burbank.
“We could change our lives,” Higbee said. “So we did.”
But long-term data compiled by USA Facts, using information from the Bureau of Labor and the Federal Housing Finance Agency, shows that life-changing property values may not last forever.
Since 2015, home prices in Ada, Idaho have risen 136% while wages have risen 44%. During the same period in Los Angeles County, home prices increased 68% and wages increased 36%. And, statewide, the gap between home prices and wages has widened in all five states, courting more Californians than California.
Another factor, for the Higbees and, if the data is to be believed, for hundreds of thousands of others, is taxes.
Three of the five most important states for Californians (Texas, Nevada, and Florida) have no state personal income tax, and two others (Idaho, 5.8% flat and Arizona, 2.5% flat) are lower than the state personal income tax. personal income for some in California, ranging from 1% to 12.3%.
But the personal income tax is only part of the picture. By factoring in various other ways that states squeeze money from their residents, including everything from property and sales taxes to license fees, all states that move try to make up for their lack of income taxes. , according to a report from the Census Bureau. California’s overall tax burden ranks highest at 9.2% of median income, but Nevada 8.3%, Texas 8.2%, Idaho 7.9%, Arizona 7.7% and Florida, 6.7%, are all within a stone’s throw.
Still, if the Higbees represent the future in any way, it might be because of their experience telecommuting from state to state.
McGhee said it’s too soon to know how important long-distance telecommuting played in recent migration patterns, but it could be a burden on the California population in the future.
“Historically, the people most likely to leave California had lower incomes. That tells you that their move had something to do with the cost of living, mostly because of the housing,” McGhee said.
“But what changed during the pandemic was that high-income people started leaving as well. And many of them did it because they could still keep their jobs in California.
“That’s a big part of this acceleration in internal migration,” he added.
“It could also be in the future.”