California Was Once a Land of Boundless Opportunity. That's No Longer True.

The state's population stagnation is likely to continue for decades as younger people flee for opportunities elsewhere.


After spending late summer in a picturesque town in the Pacific Northwest, I'm eager to get home to California and enjoy the sunshine and warm weather. But it's not just the climate that I miss. There's something fabulous about our varied scenery. The drive past Mount Shasta and into the Central Valley always stirs my heart. And I love the spirit of California, with its diversity of people, cuisine and cultures—as well as its fascinating Gold Rush history.

The state always beckoned me, so much so that when I was offered a job in Orange County in the 1990s I accepted it immediately and then had to break the news to my shell-shocked wife. Even then, the home prices were daunting compared to the rest of the country—an imbalance that only has gotten more pronounced in the ensuing 25 years as slow-growth regulations took hold and led to a consistent underbuilding of new housing units.

I still remember poring over The Orange County Register's classifieds (remember classified ads?) and finally found a house we could afford. We drove down the street. There were bars on most windows, sketchy characters hanging out and graffiti on buildings. Despite my wife's fears that we traded our serene Midwestern life for a scene from a crime drama, we eventually bought a home, raised three kids, and acclimated to the lifestyle.

And it is a pretty great lifestyle. I've since visited every one of the state's 58 counties and virtually every city and town of any note. My brain understands why so many friends and neighbors have moved to Texas, Arizona, and Florida, but my heart doesn't.

It's time for state policymakers to recognize what's going on and cop to their complicity in the continuing outmigration of people who, I suppose, mostly love the state as much as I do. "California has long beckoned with its coastal beauty and bustle—the magnetic pull of Hollywood, the power of Silicon Valley," explained a recent New York Times article. "That allure helped make it a cultural, economic and political force. For 170 years, growth was constant and expansion felt boundless."

The article centered on new population figures: By 2020, California officials expected our population to soon reach 40 million—and they expected another 10 million people in the coming decade. When I was born in 1960, California had a population of less than 16 million people. When I moved here, it had more than doubled to 33 million—having gained far more than the current total population of my home state of Pennsylvania.

California's rapid growth infused every policy discussion. It went hand in hand with the sense of opportunity that built our culture. As recently as 2017, the state had gained 300,000 people year over year, but the numbers were slowing. We were edging closer to the 40-million mark, but the state no longer was a magnet for other Americans. The growth came mostly from births and immigration.

Lawmakers dismissed the impact of the California Exodus, whereby many Californians—tired of the high taxes, unaffordable home prices, in-your-face progressive politics, and meddlesome regulations—moved to states with laissez-faire policies. Then after the 2020 Census the slowing growth turned to actual declines. Lawmakers blamed COVID deaths (as if other states hadn't experienced the same pandemic). Now the decline trend is obvious.

Per the Times, "The state lost more people than it gained in each of the last three years and shrank to less than 39 million people. Recent data released by the state Finance Department now offers a stunning prediction: The population could stagnate for the next four decades." Endless growth isn't necessarily a good thing in and of itself, but it toys with our self-esteem. I've lived in declining cities in the Midwest, and let's just say that optimism is in short supply there.

Sadly, this trend is entirely self-imposed. I'm not saying our leaders don't love California, too, but their zeal for expanding government, quashing entrepreneurship, and their focus on social engineering at the expense of basic governance has taken its toll.

They forget a key point: California's appeal had always been its blank-slate appeal to people who have new ideas and want to escape the stodgy, encrusted attitudes of the states and countries that they have fled. But you can't try new ideas in a place where overly powerful bureaucracies crush entrepreneurial ideas and regulate every aspect of our lives.

The population figures show that young, wealthy people are now fleeing California, too. Older people who own homes and are heading toward retirement mostly are staying, but the California Dream was never about turning this place into a giant retirement home. California was a land of boundless opportunity. That's no longer true. Barring some political disruption, I suspect the Times is right that this means decades of stagnation despite the state's inherent wonders.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.