California exports more than commodities such as movies, new technologies and produce. It also exports truck drivers, cooks and cashiers.
Every year from 2000 through 2015, more people left California than moved in from other states. This migration was not spread evenly across all income groups, a Sacramento Bee review of U.S. Census Bureau data found. The people leaving tend to be relatively poor, and many lack college degrees. Move higher up the income spectrum, and slightly more people are coming than going.
About 2.5 million people living close to the official poverty line left California for other states from 2005 through 2015, while 1.7 million people at that income level moved in from other states – for a net loss of 800,000. During the same period, the state experienced a net gain of about 20,000 residents earning at least five times the poverty rate – or $100,000 for a family of three.
Kiril Kundurazieff, 56, is among the low-income residents who left California. He spent more than a decade working in a small bookstore, then at Target, then at a Verizon call center, in Southern California. After some medical issues that hampered his eyesight, he found himself unemployed in Santa Ana, with monthly rent of about $1,000 in 2012.
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“There was really nothing left for me in California,” said Kundurazieff, who also writes a blog about his cats. “The cost of living was high. The rent was high. The job market was debatable.”
Friends in Texas suggested he relocate. He now works at a Walmart in Houston, making a little north of $10 an hour. He works 40 hours a week, riding his bike about 7 miles to work many days. He does not pay state income tax. His rent is just over $500, with utilities.
About the same time that Kundurazieff was leaving, Tamara and Kit Keane were arriving from Oklahoma. Both had been working on their doctorate degrees at Oklahoma universities, Kit in biology and Tamara in education.
The Keanes already knew California. Kit, 34, was born and raised in Sacramento. Tamara, 31, spent most of her life in Southern California. They met at UC Davis about a decade ago.
With graduate degrees, they had options. They liked the cost of living in Oklahoma and bought a two-bedroom house with a backyard for the bargain basement cost of $121,000.
But they wanted to come back to California, for its beauty and to be near family. “We knew coming here, we would have to make a lot more money to live a similar lifestyle,” Tamara Keane said.
After moving back last year, both now work for the Twin Rivers Unified School District as teachers on special assignment. They are expecting a child and recently purchased a three-bedroom house in Hollywood Park for $360,000. Tamara is still working on her Ph.D.; Kit is looking into eventually teaching at the university level. “Teacher salaries are not great,” Tamara Keane said. “But they are enough for us to want to come here.”
Well-paid new arrivals in California enjoy a life that is far out of reach of much of the state’s population. Besides Hawaii and New York, California has the highest cost of living in America.
During the past three years in Sacramento, median rent for a one-bedroom apartment has risen from about $935 a month to $1,230 a month, according to real estate tracking firm Zillow.com. A single mother working 40 hours a week at $15 an hour would spend nearly half of her gross income to afford an apartment at that price. She would pay about 10 percent less for a one-bedroom rental in Houston or Dallas.
Sacramento remains relatively affordable compared to other California markets. Median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles is about $2,270 a month. In San Francisco, $3,700. Without subsidies, those prices are unreachable for a single parent making $15 an hour.
Not surprisingly, the state’s exodus of poor people is notable in Los Angeles and San Francisco counties, which combined experienced a net loss of 250,000 such residents from 2005 through 2015.
The leading destination for those leaving California is Texas, with about 293,000 economically disadvantaged residents leaving and about 137,000 coming for a net loss of 156,000 from 2005 through 2015. Next up are states surrounding California; in order, Arizona, Nevada and Oregon.
All told, California lost about 260,000 economically disadvantaged residents to the 10 states with the lowest cost of living during that time period, compared to a net gain of about 40,000 from the 10 states (other than California) with the highest cost of living.
Losing impoverished residents to other states is better for the state’s economy than losing wealthy residents, some experts said. But they said the migration itself is a symptom of deeper social problems largely related to how expensive California has become.
“Why are people leaving? Economic reasons, the high cost of living, are certainly a part of it,” said Hans Johnson, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. “For those people (near the poverty line), California is not viable.”
By some measures, California has the highest poverty rate in the nation.
Poverty is associated with issues ranging from high crime rates to an increased likelihood of health problems. If someone puts most of their money toward rent, it leaves them with less money for hospital bills or essentials – so society steps in and picks up the slack, at a cost.
“We are impacting all other systems,” said Lisa Hershey, executive director of Housing California, a nonprofit that advocates for more affordable housing. Impoverished residents who can’t afford to live in their neighborhood often “end up hospitalized, they end up in prison.”
The choices facing millions of low-income workers trying to rent in California’s urban centers are stark, Hershey and others said. They can commute from far-away locales.
“People are having to move so far away from their jobs – driving two or three hours,” Hershey said.
They can spend a huge portion of their income on rent. Many experts recommend not spending more than a third of gross income on housing. But in California, “We are actually excited to see if people are spending less than 50 percent on housing,” Hershey said.
They can live in a cramped house with others sharing the bills. More than 750,000 California households live in a rental containing more people than rooms, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Finally, they can move to a more affordable area. “This is like the ultimate displacement,” Hershey said. “People are being displaced so quickly not only in our communities but from the whole state.”
Investment in affordable housing has decreased sharply in California during the last several years, particularly since the dissolution of redevelopment agencies, Hershey said. Her organization is backing several bills that would address the issue through actions such as curbing tax deductions for vacation homes and putting the extra money toward affordable housing.
Other than housing, a key reason many are leaving is intense competition for jobs. Even in San Francisco, where the unemployment rate is low, there are so many people trying to make it that those without much education or training have trouble finding work.
“I just helped someone apply for a cashier position at CVS,” said Michael Bernick, a job training expert and former director of the state Employment Development Department. “Very competitive. The person I applied with failed, even though he has a college degree.”
San Francisco “is the best employment market in the state – and yet even here, the cashier jobs, the restaurant jobs, are getting tens of applicants for most positions,” he said.
With persistence, it is easier to get an entry level job in some parts of California than others, though education and training helps greatly. “The minimum qualification for most jobs at $11 an hour is a high school diploma,” said Terri Carpenter, workforce development director at the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency. “If you don’t have any long-term experience to supplement a high school degree, you don’t have too much opportunities. Your most successful candidates are those who have at least a two-year degree.”
Several experts noted a growing income disparity between Californians with and without college degrees. That shows up in the data on domestic migration: About 800,000 more adults 25 and older without a bachelor’s degree left California for other states than came here; there was a simultaneous net gain of adults with graduate degrees.
“On a social basis, college degrees largely serve as sorters,” Bernick said. “People without college degrees are at a disadvantage in many jobs, especially decent paying jobs.”
Without a college degree, workers are generally, at best, stuck in low-paying jobs. And many of them decide to leave.
The jobs with the biggest net loss to other states from 2005 through 2015 were cashiers, cooks, truck drivers, material movers, retail sales reps and customer service reps. Those jobs alone accounted for a net loss of 200,000 California workers.
The professions with the highest net gain from other states? Software developers and physicians.
About this story
Figures for this story come from the U.S. Census Bureau Public Use Microdata Sample, a weighted collection of data taken each year from the American Community Survey. It was obtained through the Minnesota Population Center.
The Census Bureau asks the people it surveys where they lived exactly 12 months ago, making it possible to determine if they moved in the last year. It also asks about their household income during the last 12 months and calculates poverty status based on their answer. The Bee combined answers to these questions to determine how many economically disadvantaged residents came and left California. Since the Census Bureau doesn’t ask exactly when during the last 12 months someone moved, poverty figures in the story may include income earned both in their old state and their new home.