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Blog Post · February 7, 2024

Who’s Leaving California—and Who’s Moving In?

photo - Moving Boxes in Living Room of New Home

California is in unprecedented demographic territory, one in which population declines characterize the state. Lower levels of international migration, declining birth rates, and increases in deaths all play a role. But the primary driver of the state’s population loss over the past few years has been California residents moving to other states. And while the most recent data suggest that the outflow has abated somewhat, it remains near record levels. It is a remarkable turnaround for California—long the epicenter of population growth in the United States.

Much has been made of the California exodus to other states, and rightly so. This migration, over the decades, has the power to reshape the state. From 2010 through 2022 about 8.5 million people moved from California to other states, while only 6.3 million people moved to California from other parts of the country, according to the American Community Survey. The state has lost residents to other states every year since 2000, according to Department of Finance estimates.

During the height of the pandemic, the flows out of the state became so large that almost every demographic and socioeconomic group experienced net losses. For example, California used to gain college graduates even as it lost less educated adults. But in the last few years the state has started losing college graduates as well—albeit not to the same extent as less educated adults.

The good news is that the net loss of college graduates abated considerably in 2022, and California is once again attracting young college graduates in their 20s, with a net gain of more than 20,000 for this group in 2022—important shifts for a state economy that increasingly demands highly educated workers. This is a return to a long-standing pattern—in fact, 2021 was the only year since 2000 that California had net losses among young college graduates.

Equally striking: California has been losing higher-income households as well as middle- and lower-income households. During the pandemic, the number of higher-income households moving to California declined a bit, but the number leaving the state increased dramatically—from less than 150,000 in 2019 to almost 220,000 by 2021.

But this trend is now shifting, with a sharp increase in the number of higher-income adults moving to California (up 30% in 2022 versus 2021) and a slight decline in the number moving out. The net effect is a strong rebound from the pandemic years.

The losses of college graduates and higher-income households are likely related to the ability of many highly educated and highly paid workers to work from home—and the recent decline in the number leaving may reflect shifting policies around remote work. Still, about two-thirds of the almost three million Californians who telework full-time (five or more days per week) have at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse surveys. Among recent higher-income Californians leaving the state, a large share (43%) report working from home in the American Community Survey.

While the migration of higher-income and more highly educated households is notable, these outflows are still relatively small in proportion to their shares in the state as a whole. For example, in 2022 California was home to 8.3 million adults (ages 20 to 64) with at least a bachelor’s degree; that year, the net outflow of this group amounted to 0.4% of the number of college graduates. Similarly, California was home to 8.9 million 18 to 64 year olds living in higher-income households in 2022; the net outflow of this group was only 0.3%.

Most people who move across state lines cite employment, housing, or family as the primary reason. Since 2014, California has experienced net losses of almost 700,000 adults who cite housing as the primary reason, a sharp increase from 2004–13, according to the Current Population Survey. The PPIC Statewide Survey finds that 34% of Californians have seriously considered leaving the state because of high housing costs. Political outlook might also play a role for some movers, as conservatives are more likely to contemplate leaving the state than liberals. About half of those who leave the state buy a house in their new state, whereas only one-third of those moving to California buy a house.

The picture painted by these trends illustrates the difficulties faced by many Californians. The state’s high cost of living, driven primarily by high housing costs, remains an ongoing public policy challenge—one that needs resolution if the state is to be a place of opportunity for all of its residents. At the same time, the most recent trends suggest some positive changes as Californians—and would-be Californians—reassess their options in a post-pandemic world.

Earlier versions of this post were published on May 6, 2021, March 28, 2022, and March 21, 2023.


future of work Housing Political Landscape Population remote work