The California Exodus Is Real
California has morphed from a land of limitless opportunity to a highly regulated land of limits and control. No wonder so many people are leaving.
From the Reason
From a real-world perspective, the recent news from the California Department of Finance isn’t really a big deal. The state’s population, which has for years been inching ever so slowly toward the 40-million mark, actually dipped by 182,083 people last year. It won’t mean anything for the budget, public policy or our individual lives.
Yet, as CalMatters columnist Dan Walters wrote, “national news organizations went a little berserk” after seeing that statistic. “For the first time in more than a century, California recorded a net loss in population last year, a demographic reversal caused by the deadly toll of the coronavirus and declining immigration and birthrates,” The New York Times reported.
Of course, these trends have long been obvious, as Walters and others have noted. But the news was a gut check for state officials—and for Californians’ self-esteem. The Golden State has long beckoned people from across America and the globe. That concept is in our DNA—the idea of leaving behind encrusted communities and coming here to start anew. No wonder so many people were shocked by this reversal of fortunes.
The California Dream—a land “of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck,” as one historian put it—took hold during the Gold Rush for obvious reasons. After James W. Marshall in 1848 spotted gold flakes at the sawmill he was building along the South Fork of the American River to serve John Sutter’s settlement in Sacramento, it sparked what History.com calls the “largest mass migration in U.S. history.”
California’s population more than tripled in the following decade. It continued its upward trajectory and spiked dramatically following the end of World War II and the creation of the Cold War-era defense industry. Growth slowed quite a bit in recent decades. When I moved here in 1998, the state’s luster already had tarnished—and many Californians had already been building their dreams in Texas, Nevada, and elsewhere.