California – Smaller Than Texas by 2050?

State projects zero net population growth for 37 years

In 1967, California knocked New York from its perch and became the largest – by population – state in America.

In 2049, Texas may very well do the same to California.

Why? Because new state Department of Finance population forecast numbers show California as having roughly the same number – about 12,000 less actually –  of people in it in 2060 as it does right now – in 2023.

The economic, political, and cultural impacts of this new projection – in 2007 the department projected a population of 60 million in 2060 – are massive.

Even more troubling for the state is that the U.S. Census projects the national population will grow to about 404 million in 2060.

That’s 70 million new people in America with none of them in California.

If this holds true, California will lose 9 congressional seats, nearly 20% of its delegation, as its share of national population will go from a bit over 12% to a tad under 10%.  That is reminiscent of the economically devastated Rust Belt state losses in the 1970s and 80s.

The county-by-county projections show a mirror (at the state level) issue with Los Angeles County.  LA is expected to lose about 1.7 million people, which would cost it 2 state Senate seats and 4 state Assembly seats (N.B. not a bad thing, actually). Since the overall state population stays flat, other counties – like Riverside, San Joaquin, and Sacramento – can expect to increase their representation in the statehouse.

The forecasts will have ripple effects throughout the state, as the numbers are used by government agencies and private industry to make future plans.

Cities that assumed for a population increase of “X” will have to re-visit their general plans, school districts will have to rejigger their building (or not building, so school bonds should have an appropriately very difficult time passing) plans, businesses will take a third or fourth look at whether to expand in the state, and public pension and health care funds will be even more stressed with comparably fewer-than-expected earners supporting retirees.  

And, of course, the on-time, on-budget high speed rail project will have to tweak its ridership projections and that could eat into its projected massive profits.

Just kidding on that last one – couldn’t resist.  Seriously, though, the ludicrous ridership projections are based on higher population estimates.

“Everyone is going to have to re-think everything,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association. 

Coupal did note, however, that a flat population should mean taxes should also remain flat.  This being California, the very heavy emphasis was on should; the state prison system has shed nearly half of its inmate population over the past 15 years and its budget has actually nearly doubled. 

In theory, moving from a “growth” perspective to a “static” one should force reconsiderations on a number of levels.

In theory, government agencies around the state should need to spend less on schools and local infrastructure and less on new public transit (those numbers won’t go up) projects.  

In theory.  

Draconian laws to supersede local zoning to force higher density housing should be scaled back, “climate targets” lessened, and traffic “mitigation” concepts like vehicle miles traveled taxes should be back-burnered because, with fewer people projected, they become even less necessary than they are now.

In theory.

Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer warned not to look at the numbers through an overly “political” lens, adding that they are reflective of the most recent data and that next year’s more through projection could be different .

It should be noted that the 60 million projection was unusually high and considered a bit of an outlier by demographers and that the 2021 projection was already lower at about 42 million (also, the population does grow slightly for a few years before beginning to decline again as the increasingly aging population begins to shed this mortal coil in droves.)

Palmer said the projections – and particularly the real number drops of the past two years – are caused by a declining birth rate (the state’s fertility rate is far below the 2.1 kids per family rate needed to keep up), the spike in deaths due to COVID, and “Trump policies that restricted legal foreign immigration,” something that Palmer said has historically driven the state’s population gains.

As to the confluence of these projections and the reports of the wealthy – who pay most of the taxes – leaving the state, Palmer pointed to a Bloomberg News item that shows a significant increase of high earners during the pandemic.

Palmer said that blaming politics for the population flatline is “a simplification that is false.”

Coupal and noted demographer Wendell Cox were having none of that.

“This is the result of bad government policies – it’s that simple,” Coupal said.

Cox, who wrote a detailed piece on the subject for New Geography agreed.

“I was not at all surprised,” Cox, principal of the international demographics consulting service Demographia, said.  “People who do not already own their home cannot afford to stay in California.”

Between January 2020 and July 2022, a net 870,000 people left California.  That works out to be about 1,000 people per day.

That’s not to say California has no housing shortage, especially for the middle-class, Cox said.  But that, too, can be put down to the state’s horrendous regulatory system and anti-suburb mania.

But to claim that the numbers were reduced to zero growth over 37 years because of low birth rates, COVID, and Donald Trump is missing the point, Cox said.

“I am flummoxed that somehow the exodus of domestic migration has slipped their notice,” Cox said.

All of this while Texas is projecting significant growth.  According to the Texas Demographics Center – the state agency that tracks population and such – the state will top 40 million residents – and therefore California – in 2049.

Howdy y’all!