California’s population is declining according to estimates from the state’s Department of Finance and the US Census Bureau. During the 2010s, population growth had slowed to a trickle, and now the pandemic has tipped our 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 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 professionals here in the past, now 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 we face including recurrent water shortages, power outages, and forest fires. Since March 2020, we have also been living under a COVID-19 emergency characterized by an ever-shifting set of state and county restrictions and mandates.
COVID -19 is a 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 people, 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 red states, they need only look to Colorado’s Democratic Governor Jared Polis, who recently told Colorado that the “emergency is over.” As he correctly notes, the vaccine is widely available, and its benefits have been repeatedly explained: those who refuse to take it only have themselves to blame in the event of a bad medical outcome.
California leaders should follow Colorado and consider dropping unnecessarily restrictive emergency COVID rules and regulations. That said, 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. 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. We can get there 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, we need 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 priorities such as high-speed rail.
State and local government can also improve the quality of life in California cities and shopping districts, by more aggressively addressing retail theft, homeless encampments, and violent crimes.
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.