After losing population in recent years, California is starting to grow again. Is that a good thing?

After Jerry Brown became governor of California for the first time nearly a half-century ago, he declared that the state had entered “an era of limits.”

Citing “sluggish economic growth, increasing social instability, widespread unemployment and unprecedented environmental challenges,” Brown told state legislators in his 1976 state of the state speech, “In place of a manifest economic destiny, we face a sober reassessment of new economic realities, and we all have to get used to it.”

At the time, his rather gloomy observation seemed to be in line with current events. California had seen startling population growth and economic expansion in the decades after World War II, becoming the most populous state in 1962 during the governorship of Brown’s father, Pat Brown.

However, population growth slowed in the 1970s after the postwar baby boom had waned. By then the state’s economy was undergoing a dramatic, dislocating transformation from industrialism to post-industrial domination by trade, services and technology.

As it turned out, however, the conditions Brown cited, which he translated into fiscal austerity for state government, were merely a pause, not a permanent new reality.

California boomed in the 1980s, with Ronald Reagan’s administration pumping many billions of dollars into the state’s aerospace sector for a military buildup and a population surge driven by waves of migration, mostly from Latin America and Asia, and a new baby boom.

Between 1980 and 1990, California’s population increased by more than 6 million people to nearly 30 million. The 26% gain meant California gained a whopping seven new congressional seats after the 1990 census.

However, things began to slow down shortly thereafter. In the 1990s, the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union manifested itself in sharp cutbacks in military spending, leading to a recession and an exodus of aerospace workers and their families.

Population grew slowly over the next two decades and declined during the COVID-19 pandemic as stay-at-home workers fled to states with less expensive housing, foreign immigration slowed, the death rate rose and the birth rate declined.

However, a new report from the state Department of Finance’s demographics unit says that after four years of population loss, California gained a tiny bit in 2023, “driven by decreased mortality and a rebound in legal foreign immigration.”

The gain was 67,000 residents, bringing California’s population to 39,128,162, the department’s demographers found as they calculated the various factors that influence population changes. What they call “natural growth” – births minus deaths – increased from 106,700 in 2022 to 118,400 in 2023, largely because the death rate dropped after spiking upward during the pandemic.

California’s 1980s baby boom is just a faint memory, however. At one point Californians were producing more than 600,000 babies each year, the equivalent of more than one birth every minute, but the state’s birthrate has dropped to a record low and it now has one of the nation’s lowest fertility rates, according to a new study released this week.

The Birth Industry Lawyers Group, which specializes in maternity legal issues, used federal data to report that California’s fertility rate over the past several years, 55 per 1,000 women, is below the national rate of 58.8 and ninth lowest among the states. South Dakota is the most fecund state with a 71.2 fertility rate, followed closely by North Dakota.

The new Department of Finance report projects that with the effects of pandemic worn off, California’s population will continue to grow, albeit slowly.

The new data raise an old question: Is California better off with an increasing population or do the demands of more people just make things more complicated by increasing competition for jobs, housing and other necessities of life?

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