How California can start to address its declining population
Credit: Ringo Chiu/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom


How California can start to address its declining population

The main reason for leaving California is the high cost of living.

California’s population is declining according to estimates from the state’s Department of Finance and the U.S. Census Bureau. During the 2010s, California’s population growth had slowed to a trickle and now the COVID-19 pandemic has tipped the state’s growth rate into negative territory. While some may welcome less crowded conditions, a stagnant or declining population should be a cause for concern and policy reassessment. A lack of new blood means a loss of social and economic vitality and a lack of new taxpayers means fewer shoulders to carry California’s considerable state and local debt burden.

While modest population growth might return after the pandemic ends, the 2021 population decline could be the beginning of a long-term trend, with California following such other large states as Illinois and New York into a prolonged population decline.

Irrespective of the absolute numbers, California has been suffering net domestic outmigration for many years and is likely to continue to do so. In other words, more Californians are moving to other states than Americans from other states are relocating to California. That trend seems likely to continue due to the increased popularity of remote work. While the opportunity to work at a Bay Area tech company would have drawn many professionals here in the past, now some of those individuals have the option to take high-end California jobs while remaining in their home states.

The main reason for leaving California—or choosing not to come here— is the Golden State’s relatively high cost of living. This is a hard problem to solve under the state’s current political alignment. The main driver of California’s high living costs is its expensive housing. The policy solutions to lower home costs are straightforward: allow the construction of more housing and reduce building costs. But implementing these changes in a state where environmental concerns, NIMBYs, and organized labor hold so much sway is very difficult.

If we cannot make California less expensive, it may be possible to make the state a better place to live; thereby offsetting high living costs with a high quality of life. Of course, California already offers many benefits, including great weather, beautiful scenery, and many upscale communities. But population trends suggest that these advantages are no longer enough to draw new residents or keep the ones we have.

One deterrent to living here is the seemingly constant states of emergency residents face, including recurrent water shortages, power outages, and forest fires. Since March 2020, Californians have also been living under a COVID-19 emergency characterized by an ever-shifting set of state and county-level restrictions and mandates.

COVID-19 is a global and national problem, but many states that receive California migrants have taken less aggressive measures to deal with the pandemic. Texas, Florida, Idaho, Arizona, and Utah reopened faster than California and are imposing fewer (if any) vaccine and mask mandates. Most of these states have experienced higher COVID-19 death rates than California, but, for children and young adults, the differences have been minimal: most younger people recover from the disease without a hospital stay. For at least some younger adults, the risk that businesses, schools, and other facilities will suddenly close or that they will be denied access to these places is more of a threat than getting COVID. This is increasingly the case with the rise of the Omicron variant, which appears to be less severe for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.

Yet, California maintains a public health emergency at the state level, along with a slew of local mask and vaccine mandates. Where I live in Contra Costa County, restaurants are being fined and closed for not checking vaccination cards even though Omicron is spreading rapidly between vaccinated individuals.

Although it may be implausible to ask proudly blue Californians to take lessons from the reddest of states, they need only look to Colorado’s Democratic Governor Jared Polis, who recently told Coloradans that the “emergency is over.” Polis told Colorado Public Radio:

Ryan Warner: We often ask listeners to submit questions and for the last few months, the majority have asked why you won’t impose a statewide mask mandate. We’ve recently seen a surge in cases and a shortage of hospital beds. Is there anything that would prompt you to return to a statewide order?

Gov. Jared Polis: Our top goal is always to follow the science, and there was a time when there was no vaccine, and masks were all we had and we needed to wear them. The truth is we now have highly effective vaccines that work far better than masks. If you wear a mask, it does decrease your risk of getting COVID, and that’s a good thing to do indoors around others, but if you get COVID and you are still unvaccinated, the case is just as bad as if you were not wearing a mask. Everybody had more than enough opportunity to get vaccinated. Hopefully it’s been at your pharmacy, your grocery store, a bus near you, [or at] big events. At this point, if you haven’t been vaccinated, it’s really your own darn fault.

As Gov. Polis correctly notes, the vaccines are widely available and their benefits have been repeatedly explained. Those who refuse to take it only have themselves to blame in the event of a bad medical outcome.

At this point, California’s leaders should follow Colorado’s lead and consider dropping unnecessarily restrictive emergency COVID-19 rules and regulations. That said, private businesses and individuals who want to remain more cautious should be free to do so. No one should be forced to go into crowded spaces, and if companies and restaurants want to verify vaccination status, they should be free to do so.

There are also steps that state leaders can take to end the water and fire emergencies the state keeps facing. Rather than vilify residents and farmers for using water, the state should take steps to make sure that plenty of water is available in both rainy and dry years. On water policy, California can get to better outcomes with an “all of the above” strategy that includes more water storage, more recycling of dirty water, and more desalination. These are all proven solutions, but, unfortunately, storage and desalination face political barriers erected by environmentalist opponents. 

The threat from wildfires will not be reduced by focusing on climate change. California produces only 1% of the world’s greenhouse gases and its share is already declining. Instead, the state needs to move more powerlines underground and aggressively implement forest management techniques, such as cutting back dead and dying foliage. These steps would also reduce the need for power cuts, which are often taken as a defensive measure against forest fire risk. Undergrounding and forest management are costly undertakings, but California can pay for them by cutting back on lower policy priorities, such as the state’s over budget and behind schedule high-speed rail system.

Maybe California cannot become an inexpensive place to live. But if it becomes a place in which people are free to patronize businesses without concern about ever-changing health mandates and a place where individuals no longer worry about being ordered to take three-minute showers, breathe smoke-filled air for weeks on end or repeatedly lose power, perhaps more people will find the tradeoff between California’s cost and quality of life acceptable.

A version of this column previously appeared in the California Bullhorn.