California’s population shrank by 117,552 people in 2021, representing an unprecedented two year decline in population for the most populous state in the country. California is set to lose a congressional seat for the first time in its history in 2022 as a result of its relative decline.
Decline began in 2020 with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, with the state losing an estimated 182,000 people in 2020. The current population of the state is estimated at 39,185,605 residents, close to its population six years ago. 34 out of 58 counties have seen a net decrease in population over the last year, as have 5 of the 10 largest cities in the state. California nonetheless remains by far the most populous state in the union, with the runner up, Texas, nearly 10 million residents behind the Golden State.
California’s growth had long been slowing in recent years due to a declining birth rate and internal migration of its citizens to other states, but this was offset by high levels of international migration, as over a quarter of California’s citizens are first generation immigrants, which leaves it with a higher percentage of foreign born residents than any other state. In 2021, roughly 43,000 foreign born residents migrated to California, nearly a hundred thousand fewer than the pre-pandemic average, further contributing to the decline.
Republicans in the state have contributed the outbound migration of California residents to Democratic policies on various issues such as homelessness, crime, housing, taxes and COVID restrictions. More than 280,000 more people moved out of California to other states than vice versa in 2021, although the state has had a net loss of citizens to other states for over 30 years.
“It’s not because we no longer have good weather,” quipped Kevin Kiley, former Republican gubernatorial candidate and current state assemblyman and congressional candidate.
Prominent media figures such as Ben Shapiro and Joe Rogan have famously left the state over the course of the pandemic, citing high taxes, strict lockdowns and the deteriorating condition of the cities as motivating factors.
“This place is crazy,” Rogan said. “The lockdown still exists, right? The homelessness is completely out of control…There’s a 13.5 percent state income tax here in California, and the place is still f—ed up.”
The cost of living within the state is commonly cited as a factor in population decline: the median price for a single family home in the state has jumped to $849,080 as of March, 2022, average gas prices are higher than anywhere else in the country, and the state has one of the most extreme disparities between rich and poor in the United States.
According to Eric McGHee, senior at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California think tank, the decline “says something about how hard it is for people to afford living here.”
Michael Whittaker is a commentator and analyst for The California Review focused on national and California affairs. Whittaker was previously a contributor at both the Stanford Review and the Stanford Daily.