Population Growth Still a Problem in California

By Ric Oberlink
December 2, 2011

Thinking about long-term problems and finding solutions for them are not exactly the strong suits of politicians, who seldom see beyond an election cycle. Population growth, in particular, is an issue they choose to ignore, no matter how obvious its exacerbations of California’s many problems. It is disconcerting, therefore, when they receive erroneous or misleading information that allows them to ignore this paramount problem.

A recent headline in the Los Angeles Times reported, “California demographic shift: More people leaving than moving in,” and although that information appeared in the state’s largest newspaper, it is hardly news. There has been a net outflow from California to other states for two decades; a net influx into California from interstate migration has not been a substantial part of the state’s growth for an even longer period.

Unfortunately, readers of this article will believe that California is losing population and that we no longer need to deal with the problems of population growth—an understandable mistake since the article did not mention how much California grew or its population growth rate. In fact, California continues to experience rapid population growth. What is remarkable is that even with a net outflow to other states of almost 900,000 over the last five years, and even with our current 12 percent unemployment, the second highest rate in the nation, California’s population still grew by over 1.5 million during the same period.

During the past two decades, in spite of millions of people moving from California to other states, the state’s population has increased by 7.5 million—a figure about the same as the combined population of New Zealand and Uruguay—to its current 37.3 million. The growth rate exceeds that of Zimbabwe and Lebanon.

One might well ask why California’s population is increasing by millions when so many are leaving the state. The late Leon Bouvier, former director of research and vice president of the Population Reference Bureau, put it this way: “How did California grow so rapidly? The answer is deceptively simple: immigration.”

Looking at just the two-generation impact of immigration—immigrants and their children—one finds that it comprises virtually all of the population growth in the state. As the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters noted, “California’s growth is almost entirely a product of immigration, legal and illegal…. Indeed, immigration and babies born to immigrant mothers comprise virtually all of California’s net population growth….”

California’s litany of problems—overcrowded and underperforming schools, loss of open space and wildlife habitat, traffic jams, unbalanced state budgets, massive unemployment—is aggravated by continuing population growth. Alas, the situation is unlikely to improve. California’s Department of Finance projects that the state population will exceed 50 million by 2050.

The San Francisco Chronicle reprinted the same Times story with an even more blatantly erroneous headline: “California losing more residents than gaining.” This misinformation is, to say the least, unhelpful.

In 1996, Barbara Jordan, as Chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, called on the President and Congress to enforce our laws against illegal immigration and to reduce legal immigration in “the national interest.” Regrettably, a succession of Presidents and Congresses failed to heed this advice. The result is continuing immigration-driven population growth and a further diminution of the California Dream.


Ric Oberlink, J.D., is a Senior Writing Fellow at Californians for Population Stabilization.