California’s population dipped by 182,083 residents last year, bringing the state’s total to 39,466,855 people as of January 1, 2021, according to new population estimates and housing data released today by the California Department of Finance. California’s negative growth rate of -0.46 percent represents the first 12-month decline since state population estimates have been recorded. Three principal factors contributed in this year-overyear population decrease:
- Continuing declines in natural increase – births minus non-COVID-19 deaths (loss of 24,000)
- Continuing declines in foreign immigration – accelerated in recent years by federal policy (loss of 100,000)
- Deaths in 2020 separately associated with the COVID-19 pandemic (loss of 51,000)
In recent years, the slowdown in natural increase – a nationwide trend affecting California more than other states – has contributed to the state’s population growth slowing and plateauing. The addition of 2020’s COVID-19-related deaths, combined with immigration restrictions in the past year, tipped population change to an annual loss.
People who move to California are different from those who move out. In general, those who move here 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.
Those who move to California also tend to have higher education levels than those who move out—an especially important factor given the state’s strong need for college graduates. Notably, this gain in educated residents is concentrated among young college graduates (generally, adults in their 20s) looking for opportunities as they start their careers.
Also of note: people who move to California have higher incomes than those who move away. Some have argued that the opposite is taking place—that California’s relatively progressive and high personal income tax rates drive out higher-income residents. But the fact is that California has been losing lower- and middle-income residents to other states for some time while continuing to gain higher-income adults. In the past five years the flow of middle-income residents out of the state has accelerated.
Most people who move across state lines do so for economic or family reasons. The vast majority of adults who left California in the 2010s cited jobs (49%), housing (23%), or family (20%) as the primary reason (according to the Current Population Survey). The PPIC Statewide Survey finds that one-third of Californians have seriously considered leaving the state because of housing costs.