The pandemic has significantly altered California’s population dynamics, leading to a decline in some counties and a boom in others. In addition, the latest census data reveals that a wide range of factors, including COVID-19 health protocols, the construction of new housing, the closure of prisons, and the return of employees to workplaces, have impacted many counties.
These developments have influenced the movement of people across the state. While California’s population has been shrinking, some urban counties like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara have rebounded from the losses they suffered at the beginning of the pandemic. Meanwhile, rural counties such as Lassen and Yolo have experienced fluctuations in their population numbers due to local changes.
Demographic experts suggest that these census data reflect the movements of the population during the pandemic’s most critical period, and population losses may have slowed down. Urban centers could see their populations rebound when the 2022–23 numbers are released.
The pandemic initially pushed many people to leave urban areas, fearing the spread of the virus in crowded communities. However, the “waning of the worst days of the pandemic has slowed the exit from major cities,” says Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA. As a result, many young workers are once again finding cities attractive. Despite this, safety, housing, and infrastructure remain significant concerns.
Some counties have witnessed a significant population loss, while others have rebounded. For instance, Lassen, Alpine, Plumas, Sierra, and Mono are among the ten counties with the highest rate of population loss between July 2021 and July 2022. In addition, Lassen County has been affected by the closure of the California Correctional Center in Susanville, leading to the departure of inmates and employees.
On the other hand, Yolo County is among the ten counties that gained the most population in the same period, with a 4.26% growth rate. The county has been attractive to people from the Bay Area thanks to its affordable housing and proximity to Bay Area jobs.
Among the counties that lost the most people in 2020–21, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara are now showing top 10 percent population gains, with many students returning to their campuses. In addition, Riverside, Madera, Placer, Yuba, and San Benito counties have all continued to grow, indicating that people are moving to more affordable and less crowded areas.
The latest census data show Californians have relocated due to the pandemic and several other factors. Still, many counties are starting to resettle into a pre-pandemic status quo. The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated issues like housing, homelessness, infrastructure, and safety in major cities. Unless these flaws are corrected, major cities will likely continue to depopulate.
Overall, the pandemic has caused a lot of disruption in California’s population dynamics. While some counties have been hit hard by population losses, others have rebounded due to various factors. It remains to be seen how these trends will evolve in the coming years.