Opinion: California's population is growing again. Is that a good thing?

Thousands of people crowd the Midway at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Photo by Chris Stone

After Jerry Brown first became governor of California nearly half a century ago, he declared that the state had entered “an era of frontiers.”

Citing “sluggish economic growth, increasing social instability, widespread unemployment and unprecedented environmental challenges,” Brown said in his 1976 State of the State address to state legislators: “Instead of obvious economic doom, we face a sober reassessment of new economic realities .” and we all have to get used to it.”

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His rather bleak observation seemed consistent with current events at the time. California experienced astonishing population and economic growth in the decades after World War II, becoming the most populous state in 1962 during the administration of Brown's father, Pat Brown.

However, population growth slowed in the 1970s after the postwar baby boom subsided. At this point, the state's economy was undergoing a dramatic, bewildering shift from industrialism to post-industrial dominance through trade, services, and technology.

However, it turned out that the conditions outlined by Brown, which he translated into fiscal austerity measures for the state government, were merely a pause and not a permanent new reality.

California boomed in the 1980s as Ronald Reagan's administration pumped billions of dollars into the state's aerospace sector to upgrade the military and boost the population through waves of migration, mostly from Latin America and Asia, and a new baby boom.

Between 1980 and 1990, California's population grew by more than 6 million people to nearly 30 million. The 26% gain meant California gained a whopping seven new congressional seats after the 1990 census.

However, things began to slow down shortly after. In the 1990s, the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union manifested itself in severe cuts in military spending, leading to a recession and an exodus of aerospace workers and their families.

The population grew slowly over the next two decades and declined during the COVID-19 pandemic as domestic workers fled to states with cheaper housing, foreign immigration slowed, mortality rates rose and birth rates fell.

However, a new report from the U.S. Treasury Department's Demographic Division says that after four years of population decline, California increased slightly in 2023, “driven by lower mortality and a rebound in legal foreign immigration.”

The increase totaled 67,000 residents, bringing California's population to 39,128,162, the department's demographers found when they calculated the various factors influencing population changes. What they call “natural growth” — births minus deaths — rose from 106,700 in 2022 to 118,400 in 2023, largely because the death rate fell after a spike during the pandemic.

However, the baby boom in California in the 1980s is now only a faint memory. At one point, Californians were delivering more than 600,000 babies per year, equivalent to more than one birth per minute, but the state's birth rate has fallen to a record low and a new study says the state now has one of the lowest birth rates in the country published this week.

The Birth Industry Lawyers Group, which specializes in maternity issues, reported using federal data that California's birth rate of 55 per 1,000 women in recent years is below the national rate of 58.8 and the ninth lowest of all states. South Dakota is the most fertile state with a fertility rate of 71.2, closely followed by North Dakota.

The Treasury Department's new report projects that California's population will continue to grow, albeit slowly, after the impact of the pandemic subsides.

The new data raises an old question: Is California better off with a growing population, or does the demands of more people just complicate things by increasing competition for jobs, housing and other essentials?

CalMatters is a public interest journalism company that explains how the California State Capitol works and why it matters.

Anna Harden

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