High taxes. Stifling regulations. Exorbitant housing costs. Freeway gridlock. Fires and floods.
Hand-wringing over an exodus of disillusioned Californians may be a Golden State pastime, the subject of political punditry and strung-out social media threads.
But the latest data are far from dire. The U.S. Census Bureau, in its newly released surveys for 2017, shows that California’s net migration remained fairly stable. Since 2010, as the economic recovery took hold and housing prices skyrocketed, departures accelerated — but the number of newcomers rose steadily as well.
The state attracts a steady stream of college graduates, especially from the East Coast, even as many less-educated residents move to neighboring states — and to Texas — in search of a lower cost of living.
Consider that in 2017:
- More people left California (661,026) than arrived (523,131) from other U.S. states. But for the nation’s most populous state, with 39 million residents, that amounted to a tiny fraction in net departures: just 0.35%.
- Among the 25-years-and-older set, the state lost a net 86,890 residents without bachelor’s degrees, and just 4,443 with a four-year degree. It gained 11,653 people with graduate degrees.
- No state boasts more loudly of its attractions than Texas. Indeed, 63,174 people relocated from California to the nation’s second-most populous state, more than to anywhere else in the U.S. But it’s also true that no state sent more people here than the Lone Star State — 40,999.
“The cost of living, especially housing, is what stops the whole world from moving to California,” said USC demographer Dowell Myers, a longtime census expert. “Otherwise, who wouldn’t prefer California? We have superior weather. We have mountains and oceans. And we have better jobs — better paying and more specialized, whether in tech, entertainment, the arts or medicine.”
In the 1980s, Myers said, “millions of people came to California — too many — and that created an anti-growth backlash. But California has been losing people to other states since 2004. We lost people in the bubble because housing prices were so high. We lost them in the recession because our job market was worse than the rest of the country.”
Ask people why they came or left, and the reasons are often multifaceted. A few of them shared their stories:
California dream meets reality
Six years ago, Keith Johnson and Sandra Martinez-Johnson felt the lure, moving to Whittier from New Braunfels, Texas, outside San Antonio.
“On paper, the decision looked great,” said Johnson, 50, who got a job renting out construction equipment for a Downey firm. “You’ll make more money, live the West Coast dream, go to the beach, whatever. Then you get here and reality sets in.”
Two weeks ago, the couple packed their possessions to move back to Texas with their 6-year-old son, Javier.
“I’m making a good living,” Johnson explained. “But it doesn’t translate into a good quality of life. Everything costs more, from a gallon of gas to a gallon of milk. And it is impossible for an average person to buy a house.”
At one point, the family moved to Ontario, he added, thinking “that’s the only way to get a house. But then you’re commuting 80 miles a day because the work is on the coast. And you can spend 30 hours a week just driving.”
Johnson jumped at the chance when his firm posted an opening in Houston. There, he said, they found a three-bedroom single-family home for $1,750 in monthly rent, far less than they would pay in Southern California.
Since 2010, departures from California to Texas dropped by 8%. Meanwhile, the number of Texans moving to the Golden State edged up by 12%. “Migration is a revolving door,” said USC’s Myers, who lived in Austin, Texas, during the 1980s when he taught at the University of Texas. “In most locations, people come in and out at a pretty steady pace.
“A high number moves to Texas, but a high number moves from Texas back to California,” he said. “They move to Texas and boast on Facebook they bought a great house. But what do they give up? They have to stay inside all summer with air conditioning.”
Nonetheless, both Myers’ 30-something sons live in Texas. “One is in real estate,” he said. “One is a business consultant. During the recession, Texas was the only place with job growth. It became the big alternative.”
New York is ‘bleeding people’
For Paul Urcioli and his wife, Sasha Smith, who were living in Pelham, a New York City suburb, the tipping point came in the winter of 2015.
“I had a 90-foot gravel driveway to shovel by hand,” said Urcioli, 54, who taught drama at New York University and acted in television shows and commercials. “We’d had five snowfalls of at least 8 inches deep.”
Their twin sons were in preschool at the time, and “it was hard to find something interesting to do every weekend,” he recalled. “You’d bundle up the kids to go outside, but it was so cold they wanted to come back in after 10 minutes.”
One day Smith went to Los Angeles on business. “Within 12 hours, I got an all-caps text saying, ‘WHY DON’T WE LIVE OUT HERE?’ ” Urcioli said.
After Texas, New York was the largest source of migrants to California in 2017, with 34,278 arrivals — a 63% jump from 2010. Unlike Texas, more people moved to California from New York than vice versa: a net increase of 9,296. Departures from the Golden State to the Empire State remained flat over the eight years.
New to the Golden State
The states from which California gained new residents in 2017
Source: American Community Survey 2017 1-year estimates
Last year, California gained, on net, residents from about a third of U.S. states, led by Illinois (11,071), followed by New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“New York has been bleeding people,” Myers said. “They were bottled up during the recession and now they are pouring out. New York’s out-migration is way more negative than California’s: more than 450,000 moved out last year, but only about 282,000 moved in.”
Today the Urcioli and Smith family is ensconced in Rancho Park, a leafy Los Angeles neighborhood. Urcioli takes the bus to USC, where he teaches, and Smith, a digital specialist at a talent agency, can walk to work.
“For so long, I identified as a New Yorker — with a certain chauvinism,” Urcioli said. “But here, we can still go to museums and try new restaurants. And the weekend after Thanksgiving we can go to the beach, or, if we want snow, we can drive to Big Bear.”
Neighboring states beckon
While New Yorkers made a continental leap, slightly boosting California’s population, the three states accounting for the Golden State’s highest net losses in 2017 are along the border: Arizona (which gained 32,326 Californians), Oregon (29,561) and Nevada (23,745).
Paul McDermott, a Philadelphia native, first visited California in 1995. “I rented a convertible Mustang,” he recalled. “A friend took me to Newport Beach and we did something called rollerblading. Then and there I decided I wanted to move to California.”
But in October, McDermott, 59, a manager for a security guard company, and his fiancee moved to Henderson, Nev. “After 22 years in California, the politics, restrictive gun laws and the ridiculously high cost of living drove me out,” he said.
He was paying $1,900 a month to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Huntington Beach. Now he pays $1,500 a month at a newer complex in Henderson. And Nevada has no state income tax.
The census report doesn’t reveal why people leave, but economics, lifestyle and culture may all play a part.
McDermott chose Nevada in part because of the warm weather. But also, he said, he was irked at the red tape involved in obtaining a concealed weapon in California, one required for his job.” And then, he said, “there was the whole California mind-set: The final 'straw,' if you will pardon the pun, was when they restricted straws in restaurants.... I mean, seriously?”
The top destinations for people who called California home in 2016
Source: American Community Survey 2017 one-year estimates
On the other hand, Aimee Imlay, a 38-year-old San Diego social worker who recently moved to Lexington, Ky., for graduate school to study economic inequality, says emphatically, “I did not choose Kentucky based on weather and politics, to be sure.”
Rather, she said, the University of Kentucky’s stipend ”is similar to what the UCs offer and my money goes so much farther here.”
Despite the departures, California’s overall population has grown. Even as the number of California babies born each year has dropped since 1990, paralleling the aging of the U.S. population, the number of births still exceeded the number of deaths by about 220,000 in 2017, according to the California Department of Finance.
Moreover, international newcomers rose by a net 185,000 last year despite a steep drop in Mexican immigrants, from about 150,000 a year in the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s to about 40,000 a year in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. That reflects an improved Mexican economy and a government birth control push.
At the same time, immigrants from China, India and other Asian nations are moving to California in greater numbers. Between 2012 and 2016, 58% of new California immigrants came from Asia, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, while just 28% came from Latin America.
“Many Asians come for technology jobs,” Myers said. “Also, they can handle the housing prices better than Mexican immigrants.”
Neena Moorjani, 45, moved from her native Hong Kong to California to attend college at Biola University in La Mirada. After gaining her bachelor’s degree, she worked in public relations, moving to Washington, D.C., then to Singapore and, two years ago, back to the Golden State.
In Sacramento, Moorjani took a UC Davis course to become a certified financial planner, but now, she said, high taxes and rising housing costs are driving her out. She is moving to Virginia to be closer to family. “I need to buy a home soon and homes there are half the price,” she said.
Like Moorjani, most of California’s newcomers from abroad are well educated. According to a study by the Public Policy Institute, 51% of working-age immigrants who had lived in California for five years or less as of 2016 had bachelor’s or graduate degrees, compared with 37% of all Californians.
Better educated, better paid
For college graduates, California’s high-tech economy is a powerful draw.
Paul Jordan, 28, and Alexandra Bede, 27, moved from the East Coast to San Francisco in April. The couple rent a one-bedroom apartment in the hip Potrero Hill neighborhood for $3,740 a month.
“The rents are ridiculous,” said Jordan, a Duke University graduate who works for a venture capital firm specializing in sustainable energy and industrial innovation. But he and Bede, a supply chain manager for an e-commerce firm, can afford it with their six-figure salaries.
A report from the state legislative analyst’s office in February found that “although California has had net out-migration among most demographic groups, it has gained among those with higher incomes ($110,000 per year or more) and higher levels of education (graduate degrees).”
“Families with kids and those with only a high school education predominate among those moving from California to its top destination states,” it said.
From 2012 through 2017, Myers said, newcomers with bachelor’s and graduate degrees poured into California from other states, showing a net increase of about 76,000 over those leaving. At the same time, those with less than a four-year degree left in droves — a net loss of more than 400,000.
The imbalance may not be entirely positive. “We need low-skill workers too — hospital orderlies, school bus drivers, nannies and gardeners,” Myers said.
For Jordan, working in venture capital, California’s “dynamic energy” is the main attraction. “Everything new hits here first,” he said. “You feel like you are in the avant-garde.”
Still, the state’s high taxes and rents “impact everyone who lives here,” he said. “We are fortunate to be in the segment of the economy with high-paying jobs. But you can’t escape the fact that homelessness is a huge problem and people are getting displaced.”
The danger is that California will continue to attract 20-somethings but lose 30-somethings. “Young people do most of the moving,” Myers said. “They hunt around, and California is a big magnet. But then they face severe housing prices here, so the families are being lost. We are not growing a complete society.”
Meanwhile, he said, “Baby boomers are exiting the workforce. About a third are retired, with two-thirds to go. But they are still occupying housing.
“The states and cities that can build enough housing, both attracting and retaining workers, will have the dominant economies by midcentury.”
Times staff writer Ryan Menezes contributed to this report.