When Might California’s Population Start Growing Again?

By John Seiler
John Seiler
John Seiler
John Seiler is a veteran California opinion writer. He has written editorials for The Orange County Register for almost 30 years. He is a U.S. Army veteran and former press secretary for California state Sen. John Moorlach. He blogs at JohnSeiler.Substack.com
February 7, 2023Updated: February 7, 2023


As a kid growing up in cold Michigan, I was fascinated by California. The Beach Boys were my favorite band. Disney movies were magic. My family took a summer trip to the Golden State in 1964 when I turned nine, traveling from Disneyland up across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Redwoods. I loved spending time in Monterey—still my favorite place—learning Russian for a 52-week course at the Defense Language Institute in 1978-79.

It’s no wonder I ended up out here in 1987. And despite complaints detailed here in my Epoch Times columns, I have no plans to leave. Indeed, it’s dismaying seeing the decline of this state these past 36 years. But as I wave goodbye to many friends heading to Texas, Florida, Idaho, and Tennessee, it’s not surprising California’s population has been declining.

The latest U.S. Census figures show the state lost 113,649 people in the year prior to July 1, 2022. The year before that, ending July 1, 2021, saw an even bigger loss, of 395,254. That’s more than half a million gone in two years. At least the rate of exodus is slowing.

Some of the loss was from people fleeing the state’s crowded cities during the pandemic. San Francisco lost 3.7 percent of its population in the year ending July 1, 2021. A lot of people took the lockdowns, and the opportunity to work from home, to leave a city suffering soaring crime and homelessness rates.

But I think these declines are ending due to what for years I have called the Manhattanization of California. It’s the transition of California away from what, until about 2005, was a middle-class paradise. Housing along the coast still was relatively cheap—about 25 percent above the national average—while salaries were about 15 percent higher. Energy prices were reasonable, and the state’s incomparable outdoor lifestyle attracted millions every decade. In the 1980s, when I came here, the population soared 25.7 percent, rising by 6.1 million.

Now consider New York City, population 8,467,513 in 2021, the latest year tallied by the U.S. Census Bureau. That also was a decline, of 336,667 from the 8,804,190 of 2020. Its center is the densely populated Manhattan. The crime spree of 2020 during the national riots following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis drove out many of these people.

Nobody with any sense would move to Manhattan to raise a family. You crowd into a small apartment at high cost, the schools are terrible, the weather is bad, the crime—which Mayor Rudy Giulani sharply reduced in the 1990s—rose sharply in the 2010s under leftist Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Yet Manhattan has an undeniable mystique: Wall Street, the museums, the concerts, the publishing industry, the restaurants and bars, the excitement. As the old Sinatra song put it, “New York, New York … if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

The population actually has increased, rising each of the past four decades, from 7.1 million in 1980 to 8.8 million in 2020. The recent decline probably is temporary. But no one who goes to Manhattan, or the rest of the Big Apple, does so thinking it provides low-cost housing and fine public schools.

The same, I think, will hold true for California’s population changes. Those who don’t like it here will leave. But those who do come here will have no illusions. They won’t be middle-class families eager to live near the coast in single-family homes—surfing in the morning and cooking on the barbecue in the evening, even in February.

This is part of what sociologists call “the great sorting” going on in America. A clear manifestation of that is conservative Republicans moving to Red States, such as my friends heading out to Tennessee, and liberal Democrats moving to Blue States, such as California. It’s partly why Orange County, where I live, has in a decade gone from electing almost all Republicans to federal, state, and local offices, to a Purple State of mixed Republicans and Democrats.

The OC Board of Supervisors just went majority Democrat for the first time in five decades. And 1970s-era Democrats were the old, conservative types, not progressives like Rep. Katie Porter and state Sen. Dave Min are today.

Not surprisingly, Orange County’s population doubled to 3.2 million during its Republican era of 1970 to 2020. But it dropped 16,292 from 2020 to 2021. That’s probably temporary. OC remains a great place to live, especially compared to Los Angeles. Yet it’s along the coast, so it’ affected directly by California’s Manhattanization.

Some friends of mine bought a nice home on a small lot in Huntington Beach, about a mile from the state beach, for $20,000 in 1970. As recently as 2000, it went for about $180,000, and the neighborhood still was middle class and working class. The house currently lists on Zillow.com for $1.3 million.

Only rich people live in that neighborhood now, along with a few older people who bought before the huge price increase. They’re staying because of Proposition 13’s low taxes on property, based on the purchase price, which was low for them decades ago.

The California coastal middle-class lifestyle is gone. Only the wealthy can afford it now. Which also explains the political changes. In a switch, today it’s the wealthy, indoctrinated by leftism in college, who tend to be liberal Democrats. While it’s the working-class folks, more likely to have only a high-school education, and so more likely to get their politics and ethics from family and religion, who tend to be Republicans.

As this “sorting” continues, soon those seeking to leave California largely will have gone, while those who want to come here, and can afford it, will to do so in greater numbers. And the population will start going upward again.

Coastal California now is Manhattan with great weather.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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