Viewpoints

California’s population may be peaking. Here’s why

By Joe Mathews

Zócalo Public Square

Low-rise homes dot the landscape in San Francisco, June 26, 2017. A full-fledged housing crisis has gripped California, where the lack of affordable homes and apartments for middle-class families is severe. The median cost of a home here is now a staggering $500,000, twice the national cost. Homelessness is surging across the state. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)
Low-rise homes dot the landscape in San Francisco, June 26, 2017. A full-fledged housing crisis has gripped California, where the lack of affordable homes and apartments for middle-class families is severe. The median cost of a home here is now a staggering $500,000, twice the national cost. Homelessness is surging across the state. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times) NYT

This summer, California’s population finally surpasses 40 million. We should celebrate by reflecting on just how small we are.

Of course, we won’t. California, like an insecure man, is always bragging about how big it is. And so there will be another round of boasting about our population, economic output and cultural impact. There will also be new predictions about how soon we’ll get to 50 million or even 100 million people.

But such projections are unlikely to be met. To the contrary, we should consider the real possibility that our era of population growth is over – and that shrinkage may be our future.

 
Opinion

Trends that have produced population declines in other places are now strong in California. Our birth rate has fallen to its lowest rate ever. We’re losing more people to other states each year than come back to us. And immigration remains low, and could fall further given the Trump administration’s systematic harassment and mass deportation.

Our state’s own policies – especially underinvestment in schools, infrastructure and housing – all discourage having children and add to the high cost of living that drives younger people away. The result is a rapidly aging population that will consume and innovate less (most new things are invented by the young), weakening the economy and reducing the number of jobs.

And I’m not even mentioning the population reduction that could result from once unthinkable disasters, such as massive firestorms or even nuclear war.

Joe Mathews (1)
Joe Mathews, co-author of “California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It,” is California editor for ZÛcalo Public Square.

California’s population growth is already at record lows – less than 0.8 percent annually, and falling. During the heyday of immigration in the 1980s, annual population growth was 2.5 percent. Indeed, with many other states growing faster, California could lose a seat in the U.S. House for the first time ever after the 2020 census.

California would hardly be alone if its population started to decline. It’s already happening in Illinois and Pennsylvania, and 51 countries are expected to see population decreases between now and 2050, including countries that inspire our state’s social policies, such as Germany and Japan.

Despite the warning signs, the prospect of population loss hasn’t penetrated the California mind. To the contrary, we overestimate population growth. One serial offender, Gov. Jerry Brown, has talked about the inevitability – and environmental threat – of a 50 million-person California that will require us “to find a more elegant way of relating to material things.”

But for decades, California number crunchers have been quietly ratcheting down population estimates. As recently as the mid-1990s, official predictions showed California reaching 50 million people by 2020, when our real population likely will be fewer than 41 million.

Today’s California has less than one-eighth the population of the U.S., less than one-third that of Mexico, and not even 1/35th that of China. If California were a country, we would rank 35th, behind Argentina, Colombia, Tanzania and Ukraine. Our state’s most populous city, Los Angeles, ranks No. 71 worldwide.

This California, of 40 million, faces a choice: Either accept we’re a small place that’s likely to become smaller, at least compared to a fast-growing world.

Or think more seriously about how to attract more people, and do a better job of nurturing and retaining the young people here now. If we’re as big as we think we are, this is no time to think small.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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