SACRAMENTO, Calif. – In 1962, when California's population of more than 17 million surpassed New York's, Gov. Pat Brown celebrated by declaring a state holiday. In the coming days, when the U.S. Census Bureau is expected to release the state's latest head count, there probably will be no celebrations.
Over the past decade, California's average annual population growth rate slipped to 0.06% — lower than at any time since at least 1900. The state is facing the prospect of losing a U.S. House seat for the first time in its history, while political rivals Texas and Florida add more residents and political clout.
Californians have long rolled their eyes at stories about the state's coming demise, and experts say the slow growth isn’t unexpected. Still, there’s little doubt the new census numbers mark a moment for a state that has long lived in the American imagination as the land of boundless opportunity. It leaves policymakers and leaders grappling with what a California that's barely growing looks like and whether that's even a problem to be solved.
“You can say that California is a state, but it's also a state of mind, it's a collection of ideas and images and, frankly, some unrealistic dreams, too," said D.J. Waldie, a cultural historian who has written books about life in Southern California. “So this moment, this 2020 census moment, puts in relief our need to talk about California realistically."
The reality behind the slowed growth isn't complicated. Experts point to three major factors: declining birth rates; a long-standing trend of fewer people moving in from other states than leaving; and a drop in international immigration, particularly from Asia, which has made up for people moving to other states.
The immigration decline has been particularly fast in the past half decade as President Donald Trump's administration sharply reduced the number of people legally entering the United States.
But deciphering the meaning behind the slowdown is contentious. Although several factors are beyond the state's control, critics of the Democrats' decadelong reign in Sacramento often point to stagnant growth as a result of liberal policies.
“How could it not, at some level, be an indictment of what the Democratic Party has done over these last many years?” said Lanhee Chen, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who has worked on Republican presidential campaigns. “The situation we’re looking at cannot be divorced from the decisions that have been made.”