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California population growth hits record lows, stifled by COVID-19, continued exodus

COVID-19 has further restrained record-low population growth in California as more people moved away and pandemic restrictions slowed migration into the state, according to data released Wednesday.

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The California Department of Finance, which monitors the state’s population data, found that between July 1, 2019, and July 1, 2020, California saw a net gain of only 21,200 new residents — a 0.05% growth rate not seen since 1900. As of July, the state’s total population was 39.78 million.

Over that period, Los Angeles County reported a net loss of 40,036 people, more than any other county in the state.

The data underscores concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic is fueling greater migration out of California, both from people priced out of coastal areas and those who suddenly had the ability to work remotely.


The “California exodus” storyline was bolstered in recent weeks when two tech titans, Elon Musk and Larry Ellison, publicly announced they were moving to Texas and Hawaii, respectively.

But for the average person, California’s high housing costs pose a major challenge, particularly when combined with staggering job losses tied to the pandemic.

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California has been seeing slowing growth for several years, driven by a variety of factors including declining migration numbers, lower birth rates and people moving out of the state for economic and, in some cases, cultural reasons.

COVID-19 has affected the trend in several ways.


About 280,000 Californias died during the 12-month period, representing a higher-than-average spike, year over year. Part of that is due to the state’s aging population, the report said, but part of it is also due to COVID-19, which had killed more than 8,000 Californians by July.

The coronavirus also made an impact from an immigration perspective, said H.D. Palmer, deputy director for external affairs at the Department of Finance. As the pandemic raged, work patterns dramatically shifted and many international borders were closed.

“A lot of people who might otherwise have come to California didn’t, because they didn’t go anywhere,” Palmer said. “They stayed home. That’s something that’s different than any other year.”

Birth rates also continued to decline, with 14,000 fewer babies born than in the same period last year, according to the report.


“That’s a significant decline from 2019,” said Department of Finance Director Walter Schwarm, “and if we go back five or 10 years, in terms of growth, that’s 70,000 Californians that aren’t here.”

Many millennials are delaying childbirth, Schwarm said, while Gen Xers have mostly stopped giving birth and Gen Z is “not quite there yet.”

Only five urban coastal counties — Alameda, Contra Costa, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Clara — gained population, though at a slower pace than the previous year, the report said.

By contrast, several inland counties — including El Dorado, Glenn, Yuba and Merced — saw population growth during this period, a trend Palmer attributed to housing availability and affordability, as well as lifestyle changes that could drive people to seek out different areas.


Wildfires also played a role in population changes, the report said.

Butte County, which was ravaged by the 2018 Camp fire, lost population over the 12-month period, although the magnitude was slower than the previous year. In September, the county suffered again in the North Complex fire. Any population losses from that event will be reflected in next year’s report.

There have been large out-migrations from Southern California in the past, Palmer said, including a period in the early 1990s tied to the collapse of the defense and aerospace industries at the time. The current shift is reflective of a downward trend that began around 2016.

Although growth rates are slowing, Palmer and Schwarm both said that California remains a desirable place to live, as evidenced by the record high home prices reached this year.

Hundreds of thousands of people — disproportionately ones with higher incomes — are willing to continue to put down roots in the state, they said.

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