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California's population grew in 2023, halting a three-year decline, according to state estimates

The nation's most populous state is growing again, ending a trend of population decline that dogged Gov. Gavin Newsom for much of his time in office.

California added just over 67,000 people last year, its first increase since 2019, according to an estimate released Tuesday by the state Department of Revenue.

After joining the United States in 1850 in a gold rush, California was a demographic wonder for its first 169 years – its population grew every year as people flocked to the Golden State for its stunning scenery, weather and outsized economy is larger than that of all but four countries.

That streak ended in 2020 when California lost population for the first time during a crucial census year, resulting in the state losing a seat in Congress. Newsom's partisan critics said the state's high cost of living, uncertain power supply, a housing and homelessness crisis and worries about crime were partly to blame. According to U.S. Census data, Californians moving to Texas represented the largest state-to-state movement in the U.S. for two years – a fact often shared by Republicans seeking to harshly denounce Newsom.

But the Democratic governor, widely viewed as a future presidential candidate, had reason to celebrate Tuesday as state estimates showed a return to the formula that has driven California's growth in recent years: a strong influx of legal international immigration, fewer deaths as a result of coronavirus pandemic and a decline in the number of people leaving California for other states.

“People from across the country and around the world come to the Golden State to realize the California dream and experience the success of the world’s fifth-largest economy,” Newsom said in a news release.

Tuesday's estimate, which represents a growth rate of 0.17%, can hardly be called an increase. But state officials were confident it signaled a return to more normal population patterns after years of pandemic disruption.

Legal immigration to California from other countries stalled during and just before the coronavirus pandemic due to a spate of travel restrictions and tightened rules under then-President Donald Trump. However, last year the number rebounded, with a net increase of 114,200 people, almost equal to pre-pandemic levels.

State officials called it “a stable foundation for continued growth” — although that growth will likely be much slower than before, said Eric McGhee, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.

“As a percentage of the total population, it will be better for the state,” McGhee said. “At this rate, it likely still wouldn’t be enough to avoid losing additional congressional districts in the 2030 census.”

In 2023, more people still left California for other states than moved to California from other states, but they were far fewer than in previous years.

In 2021 — when coronavirus cases were still rising and more people were working remotely — California lost a net 355,648 people due to domestic migration. In 2023 there were 91,189. That's much closer to pre-pandemic trends, according to Walter Schwarm, chief demographer for the California Department of Revenue.

“The governor bragging about this is a bit like the guy who lost thousands of dollars at the casino last night and is bragging about having $20 more at the blackjack table,” said James Gallagher, the Republican leader in the state legislature. “I don’t understand why the governor and the Democratic supermajority just continue to turn a blind eye to this. They act as if nothing is wrong, even though a lot of things are.”

Living in California is still expensive, with gas prices, electric bills and housing costs among the highest in the country. The state's homelessness problem has only gotten worse despite the billions of dollars lawmakers have spent on it. California is in the midst of back-to-back multibillion-dollar budget deficits.

Newsom has taken steps to lower the state's cost of living. Last week, his administration voted to limit health care cost increases nationwide by 3% each year to curb the ever-rising cost of medical expenses. On Monday, he announced a partnership to sell a generic version of Narcan – the drug that can save lives in an opioid overdose – at a 40% discount from the market price.

Population estimates are difficult because they rely on a variety of statistics and attempt to give a good estimate of how many people are in one place at one time. According to an estimate released in December by the U.S. Census Bureau, California's population fell by 75,000 residents in 2023.

However, these estimates were aimed at different points in time. The US Census Bureau's estimate was as of July 1, 2023. The California Department of Revenue's estimate was as of January 1, 2024.

The state's estimate was based on a number of factors, including births and deaths, driver's license address changes, vehicle registration and enrollment in the federally funded health insurance programs Medicaid and Medicare.

ADAM BEAM, Associated Press

Anna Harden

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