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California’s population grew in 2023, halting 3 years of decline, state estimates

Makaristos / Wikipedia

Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The nation’s most populous state is growing again, ending a trend of population decline that had dogged Gov. Gavin Newsom through much of his tenure.

California gained just over 67,000 people last year, the first increase since 2019, according to an estimate released Tuesday by the state Department of Finance.

After joining the United States in 1850 on the heels of a gold rush, California was a demographic marvel for its first 169 years — adding population every year as people flocked to the Golden State for its stunning terrain, weather and super-sized economy, which is larger than those of all but four countries.

That streak ended in 2020, when California lost population for the first time during a pivotal census year that led to the state losing a congressional seat. Newsom’s partisan critics said the state’s high cost of living, uncertain power supply, a housing and homelessness crisis and concerns about crime were partly to blame. For a two-year period, Californians moving to Texas made up the largest state-to-state movement in the U.S., according to U.S. Census data — a fact often shared by Republicans eager to slam Newsom.

But the Democratic governor, who is widely considered a future presidential candidate, had reason to celebrate Tuesday, as state estimates showed a return to the formula that has powered California’s growth in recent years: A strong influx of legal international immigration, fewer deaths following the coronavirus pandemic and a reduction in the number of people leaving California for other states.

“People from across the nation and the globe are coming to the Golden State to pursue the California Dream and experience the success of the world’s 5th largest economy,” Newsom said in a news release.

Tuesday’s estimate — representing a 0.17% growth rate — can hardly be called a surge. But state officials were confident that it signaled a return to more normal population patterns after years of pandemic disruption.

Legal immigration to California from other countries stalled during and just before the coronavirus pandemic amid a spate of travel restrictions and tightened rules under then-President Donald Trump. It rebounded last year, though, with a net gain of 114,200 people, which was nearly its pre-pandemic level.

State officials called it “a stable foundation for continued growth” — although that growth will likely be a lot smaller than it had been, said Eric McGhee, senior fellow for the Public Policy Institute of California.

“It’s going to be better for the state in terms of its total population,” McGhee said. “It would still, at this rate, not be enough to probably avoid losing more congressional districts in the 2030 census.”

More people still left California for other states in 2023 than moved to California from other states, but it was far less than previous years.

In 2021 — when coronavirus cases were still surging and more people were working remotely — California lost a net 355,648 people because of domestic migration. In 2023, that was down to 91,189. That’s much closer to pre-pandemic trends, according to Walter Schwarm, chief demographer for the California Department of Finance.

“The governor bragging about that is sort of like the guy who lost thousands of dollars at the casino last night bragging about being up 20 bucks at the blackjack table,” said James Gallagher, the Republican leader in the state Assembly. “I don’t understand why the governor and the Democratic supermajority just continue to turn a blind eye to it. They sort of act like nothing’s wrong when there is a lot wrong.”

It’s still expensive to live in California, where gas prices, utility bills and housing costs are among the highest in the country. The state’s homelessness problem has only worsened despite billions of dollars that the Legislature has thrown at it. California is in the middle of consecutive multibillion-dollar budget deficits.

Newsom has been taking steps to address the state’s cost of living. Last week, his administration voted to limit health care cost increases statewide by 3% each year to try and rein in the ever-increasing cost of medical expenses. On Monday, he announced a partnership to sell a generic version of Narcan — the drug that can save a person’s life during an opioid overdose — at a 40% discount of the market rate.

Population estimates are tricky, as they rely on a range of statistics while trying to make a good guess of how many people are in one place at one time. An estimate released in Decembe r by the U.S. Census Bureau said California’s population fell by 75,000 residents in 2023.

But those estimates were targeting different points in time. The U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate was for July 1, 2023. The California Department of Finance’s estimate was for Jan. 1, 2024.

The state’s estimate was based on a number of factors, including births and deaths, driver’s license address changes, vehicle registration, and enrollment in the government-funded health insurance programs of Medicaid and Medicare.

Article Topic Follows: AP California

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