Los Angeles and San Francisco experienced sizable population declines during the COVID-19 pandemic, new census data shows, underscoring how California’s housing crisis and other demographic forces are reshaping two of their biggest cities.
In terms of total numbers, Los Angeles County lost about 160,000 residents, more than any other county in the country. But Los Angeles County has about 10 million people, so the per capita loss was just over 1%, compared to 6.7% in San Francisco and 6.9% in New York.
“We are in this new demographic era for California of very slow or even negative growth,” said Hans Johnson, a demographer at the Public Policy Institute of California. “And this has numerous implications: from how we live our lives, to which schools will have to close, to the kind of transportation and housing infrastructure that we will need.
The data, released by the US Census Bureau, shows that California as a whole saw a net loss of nearly 262,000 residents, with most of the losses from Los Angeles County: 159,621 people. The second-largest county-level loss in the nation was in New York, which fell by about 111,000 residents.
A state in flux
The findings paint a picture of a state in flux, with factors such as rising home prices, declining birth rates and more work-from-home options contributing to greater population mobility.
“This loss that both California and Los Angeles County are experiencing are kind of a perfect storm from a demographic standpoint, and all of the components that lead to population change are trending downward for both the state and Los Angeles.” Johnson said.
Almost all of the state’s population loss was driven by internal migration, meaning that most of the people leaving are choosing to leave – often in search of more affordable housing and job opportunities.
Jena Lords said she and her husband talked about leaving Bakersfield for several years because they weren’t happy with the direction the state was taking. Last year they moved to Idaho.
High cost of living, tax rates, and regulations
“The main reason was 2nd Amendment right,” Lords, 39, said. “There is also the high cost of living, tax rates and regulations.”Both Lords and her husband worked in the firearms industry, she said. For them, it was as if “the governor did not want us to be able to defend ourselves.”
The pandemic provided a rare opportunity for the couple to relocate: Lords had been telecommuting as a department coordinator at Cal State Bakersfield, and her husband left his job in November 2020. Last spring, she accepted a position as an administrative assistant at Idaho State University.
She and her husband lived out of their RV for 10 months before closing on a $140,000 home on a half-acre of land in Pocatello, an hour south of Idaho Falls, two months ago.”The hardest thing was leaving our friends and our family, and the beach of course,” Lords said. “The difference in culture is incredible. It’s a real village feel.”
California overall lost about 367,000 people, a higher number than the net loss, which includes gains from births and other sources. Los Angeles lost nearly 180,000 people due to internal migration
Census figures underscore the population losses the state has suffered in recent years. The state lost a congressional seat for the first time in history due to poor population growth.
The Bay Area, where housing costs have long skyrocketed, has been hit especially hard. San Francisco lost some 54,000 residents and Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley, 45,000 people.
However, the more affordable areas of Southern California, such as Riverside and San Bernardino counties, saw growth during this period, including people from other areas. According to the data, Riverside was the third county with the highest population increase in the country, with some 36,000 new residents, behind only Maricopa County (Arizona) and Collin County (Texas).
A “natural increase”
California was also one of the minorities that saw a “natural increase” in population — that is, more births than deaths during that one-year period, according to the data. More than 73% of US counties experienced a natural decline in 2021.
However, the natural increase is also slowing both nationally and within California. The state reported 91,996 more births than deaths from July 2020 through 2021, according to census data, but that number was around 262,000 in 2015.
And while the state saw a net gain in international migration — about 14,300 people moved to California from abroad — the number is also significantly lower than it has been in recent years. About ten years ago, Los Angeles County received nearly 50,000 people through international immigration. This year, the county only reported about 4,000.
“All of those factors are now operating together in a way that we’ve never seen before,” said Johnson, the demographer. “We have had periods of great internal emigration, but not at the same time that we have seen this great decrease in foreign immigration and a slowdown in natural growth. So when you add all of those things up, that translates to population losses for both the state and Los Angeles that are very, very unusual demographically.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has likely played a role in the decline in immigration, the number of international immigrants has been steadily declining for several years, said Paul Ong, director of the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Awareness.
“It’s a combination of those things, but it was certainly happening before the pandemic,” Ong said. “In a way, it’s part of what we see historically with immigrants: that they settle and cluster in some areas and cities, but eventually move away. And when they move away, they sponsor new relatives that reach further from the original nucleus.
The population decline may have a negative effect on the local economy and may mean fewer skilled workers, Ong said.For some, the decision to leave California stemmed from growing frustration and a desire for change.
“I started to see the homeless population going up and nothing was being done about it,” said former Southern California resident Alfredo Malatesta, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Peru as a child. “It was beginning to remind me of the place I left many years before.”He and his wife, Erin, moved from Santa Clarita to Tennessee in 2017, and have taken a liking to rural life outside of Nashville.
“You feel like everyone wants to screw you in some way in a city like Los Angeles. And because of the amount of taxes I used to pay to live there, the infrastructure is falling apart…everything is like they’re constantly screwing you over,” said Malatesta, 43.
After sitting down to plan for the future, the couple decided they wanted to distance themselves from the “fatigue” they felt in Los Angeles and start a simpler life.“I told myself that my wife and I cannot live happily here and that the system is counterproductive and inefficient. It’s getting harder and harder to run a business when these stresses put you under pressure,” he said. “It seems that Los Angeles no longer has an identity.”