California has long beckoned with its beauty and hustle and bustle on the coast – the magnetic pull of Hollywood and the power of Silicon Valley.
This appeal helped it become a cultural, economic, and political force. For 170 years, the growth was constant and the expansion felt limitless. And it was easy to get drawn into the lore.
“Everyone knew that there was no prejudice or discrimination, that the streets were paved with gold and anyone could be anyone – it was the land of the future,” recalled Adrian Dove, longtime chairman of the Kingdom Day Parade in south Los Angeles.
By early 2020, California’s population had grown to nearly 40 million residents, with another 10 million expected in the coming decades.
The trend then reversed with the corona pandemic and its consequences: In each of the last three years, the state lost more people than it gained, and shrank to fewer than 39 million people. Now, the latest data released by the state Treasury Department offers a startling prediction: the population could stagnate for the next four decades.
Suddenly, the Golden State, so proud of its popularity, is forced to reconsider its identity.
When Mr. Dove moved to Los Angeles from Dallas as a child in 1945, he felt a sense of freedom in his ambitions. After graduating from Compton High School, he went on to Harvard University. But now, at the age of 88, Mr Dove acknowledges that similar avenues may seem out of reach for many in a region he says has ample resources but struggles to distribute the wealth.
“California is still the dream,” he said, “but there isn’t enough for everyone.”
That sentiment is echoing across the state as rents are skyrocketing, the median selling price of a single-family home is around $830,000, and homeless camps are proliferating. The promise of a simple life in Mediterranean weather has faded in the shadow of a housing crisis.
“We are witnessing the death of what made California really great, which is its middle class,” said 60-year-old writer Héctor Tobar, whose novels have explored the state’s economic divide.
“What fueled the population boom were the new subdivisions. They were people who immigrated here to get a taste of middle-class life. And today, more than ever, California is divided between rich and poor.”
Mr. Tobar’s own father had access to this middle-class life, arriving from Guatemala with a sixth-grade education, but eventually managing to earn an associate’s degree and find work in the hospitality industry. He insisted that living in California meant his son would grow taller than him. “I suspected that we would grow into this race of giants,” said Mr. Tobar. “It was a place of abundance and opportunity.”
The reasons for the plateau are not surprising. Birth rates have fallen as couples wait longer to have children and focus on education or building a career. This can often mean having fewer children or no children at all. At the same time, the mortality rate is expected to increase as the baby boomer generation ages.
The most variable and perhaps most critical component of the expected population is migration.
It’s not a new phenomenon for people to leave the state to find a new job, find a lower cost of living, or be closer to family. But when the Covid-19 restrictions came into effect, these factors intensified. Workers were allowed to perform the same work remotely in another state while drastically reducing their costs. And immigration ground to a halt.
Eric McGhee, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said emigrants make up about 1 to 2 percent of the total population, which isn’t the emigration some would believe. (“Tell me, where are you going?” former Gov. Jerry Brown once mused when dismissing the popular notion that Californians were moving elsewhere en masse.) But, noted Mr. McGhee, these departures send a disturbing one Signal about the lifestyle in California suggests that the state is less welcoming of workers with lower wages and younger generations.
“There’s a broader philosophical question that has to do with why are we losing people to other states?” he said. “How come California, which has these very dynamic industries, can’t accommodate the people who want to be here?”
Politically, California’s influence could shrink while other states like Texas and Florida grow. California has already lost a congressional district for the first time in its history as of the 2020 census and could lose more at some point.
A shortage of young people and immigrants is also leading to lower consumer spending and a smaller workforce, threatening the momentum that has fueled California’s growth for decades.
California is already constantly pushing its limits: the dramatic fluctuations between floods and droughts. A protracted homelessness crisis that has increased tensions in many cities. The collapse of the Silicon Valley Bank. Even Hollywood has lost its luster as the ongoing strikes reveal deep problems for the film industry in the digital age.
America has always had a frontier mentality, but maybe that needs rethinking, said Chris Tilly, a professor of urban planning and sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Maybe it’s time for us to grow up and realize that we live in a world with limitations,” he said. “That could be a maturity level. If California is able to lead the country and come to terms with its growth constraints, there could be a possibility that California will still be at the top. That could really be an interesting twist.”
Of course, the population should never grow indefinitely. When it comes to creating more sustainable approaches, reassurance can be a good thing as climate change is forcing California to think differently. The increasing threat of catastrophic wildfires, for example, has convinced many leaders that the state cannot continue to convert rural lands into large suburbs.
And California remains the country’s most populous state with 10 million more residents than Texas, the second largest state. Public authorities that use the data for planning decisions use it for forecasts, but do not sound the alarm.
“The dynamic isn’t changing for us,” said Kome Ajise, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments, a joint power agency focused on mobility, sustainability and quality of life.
“There’s something mythical about California, but there’s also a substance to that appeal that’s more real,” Mr. Ajise said. “We have all the basic industries like entertainment and hospitality and a big job market. The basic economic fundamentals of California are still in place.”
Natalia Molina, a professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, said the state’s path “can be seen as a harbinger of what it means when there is no affordable housing, no investment in social care, and no clear immigration.” “Policies.”
Still, Ms. Molina notes that her grandmother left Mexico and arrived alone in California, where she ran a successful restaurant that welcomed other immigrants. Threads of similar stories seemed clear to her on a Saturday as she grabbed a sandwich at a century-old restaurant opened by a French immigrant in downtown Los Angeles, then drove through Chinatown, which has both aguas frescas and Boba gives.
Communities were born here that still feel special and worth staying here, she said.
“As long as people come and are willing to do the work,” she said, “the California dream lives on, albeit a little more feebly these days.”