The Great California Exodus to the Desert

The Great California Exodus to the Desert

The results of the 2020 Census are out, and they aren’t pretty for the Golden State, with California set to lose a House seat for the first time in history. While states like Texas and Florida boomed over the past decades, the population of California—along with struggling states like Illinois—has remained largely stagnant, growing at less than one percent per year.

But what can the 2020 Census tell us about Southern California specifically?

As with the state as a whole, the story of metropolitan Los Angeles is one of stagnation, with the City of Angels growing by a paltry 2.8 percent over the past decade. Many of the region’s wealthiest suburbs were similarly stagnant, with towns like La Cañada Flintridge and Ranchos Palos Verdes flatlining, as towns like Malibu and Beverly Hills actively shrank.

Further down along the coast, the situation is less bleak in San Diego, which grew by 6.1 percent. Yet as in metropolitan Los Angeles, virtually every suburb in metropolitan San Diego has basically stopped growing, with places like National City and Imperial Beach actively undergoing population loss.

To find any growth in Southern California, one needs to look to the exurban periphery: in metropolitan Los Angeles, this means far outer Orange County, Riverside County, and those portions of Los Angeles County beyond the San Gabriel Mountains. The former growth offers some basis for optimism, with Irvine—with its mild climate and easy access to jobs—growing by 45 percent.

Much of the growth hasn’t been nearly so ideally situated: Mojave Desert towns like Victorville and Desert Springs posted some of the highest growth rates in the region, at 16 and 25 percent, respectively. Where the growth wasn’t in the desert itself, it tended to be right next to it, with towns like Menifee, Beaumont, and Santa Clarita posting some of the highest growth rates in the region.

Indeed, this Southern California exodus to the desert seems to be part of a broader national trend: beyond merely departing for the outer fringes of metropolitan Los Angeles, it would seem that many Californians are decamping much deeper into the desert for cities like St. George, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, which grew at rates of 30.5, 16.1, and 15.6 percent, respectively.

These figures should serve as a wake-up call for state and local policymakers. Among those Californians who have stayed in the state, the unbearable cost of living in Southern California’s coastal communities—principally a function of high and rising housing costs—has banished hundreds of thousands out to the periphery, where their commutes will be long and their energy bills high.

And they are likely the lucky ones: for many more Californians, the solution has simply been to leave behind friends, family, and communities, seeking a better, more affordable life in the booming metropolises of neighboring states. What clearer sign could there be that—for most working- and middle-class California families—the much-vaunted California Dream is dead?

The takeaways of the 2020 Census for Southern California are, in equal measure, clear and tragic: Where once Americans flocked to the region in droves, seeking economic opportunity and a paradisiacal climate, today they do the opposite, driven in no small part by a desperate search for affordable housing. If Southern California was once seen as the promised land, today we are witnessing the exodus to the desert.

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