In summary

California has seen strong population growth for the past 170 years, but new data indicate that we may be reaching our population peak and could begin seeing a drop.

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When California, with 17 million residents, surpassed New York to become the nation’s most populous state in 1962, it was a cause for celebration.

The state had boomed during World War II and the postwar era, nearly tripling its population in just one generation. By the 1960s, it was well on its way to becoming a global economic powerhouse.

With the COVID-19 pandemic raging, a new state population report issued on May 1 didn’t get much media attention. But it underscored an important trend: California may be hitting its population peak and could start seeing a decline in the not-too-distant future.

The state Department of Finance calculated that California’s population growth — which had been as high as 600,000 a year in the 1980s — dropped to a net of 87,984 or 0.02% in 2019, leaving California just shy of 40 million people.

Why? Two reasons.

The first is that California’s production of babies has been declining while the number of people dying has been increasing.

The second is that the number of people leaving California for other states has been far higher than those who move here, while foreign immigration also has been waning.

Fewer babies, fewer young immigrants and the aging of the large post-World War II baby boom generation also mean that as California’s overall population growth slows to near-zero, its elderly population is still growing. And since the elderly population is mostly white, California’s black, Latino and Asian communities are destined to become ever-larger components of the state’s socioeconomic mix.

These demographic trends, if continued, would have enormous impacts even without the pandemic. If anything, the pandemic and the very sharp economic downturn it spawned will accelerate the trends, most likely retarding population growth even more.

While the birth rate had been drifting lower for years, it took a steep dive when the Great Recession struck in 2007, falling from 15.4 per 1,000 population in that year to 11.3 last year. If the pandemic recession persists, we can expect another drop in births, plus an even stronger outflow of people to other states and weaker migration from other countries.

Not only was the state population report issued during a pandemic, but also during a year when the federal government is conducting the decennial census, one that already had officials worried because many Californians — the poor, the nonwhite and the undocumented — are very difficult to count accurately.

A new study by UCLA researchers found that the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles County also tend to have the lowest census response rates and the highest rates of COVID-19 infection.

“As things stand now, the only way to prevent an extreme undercount in some areas of the county would be for a horde of in-person census takers to descend on parts of the city with the greatest chance of coronavirus transmission,” study leader Paul Ong said. “Given the ongoing health concerns, it remains to be seen whether in-person interviews will even be viable during the current census.”

Whatever the census decrees California’s population to be, it also will become the basis for calculating California’s share of the nation’s 435 congressional seats.

The state gained seven seats after the 1990 census, thanks to a growth of 6 million people in the 1980s, but it gained just one new seat after the 2000 census and none after the 2010 census. California is on the bubble for possibly losing a seat this time around, which would drive home the new reality that its 170 years of strong population expansion have come to an end.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...