California, for decades a symbol of boundless growth and opportunity that attracted people from across the country and abroad, has seen its population growth stall and is losing a U.S. House seat for the first time in its 170-year history.
Census Bureau population data released Monday is used to determine how the nation’s 435 House seats are allocated. California remains the most populous by far with nearly 39.58 million people but it is growing more slowly than other states and will see its House delegation drop from 53 to 52.
California's population grew by about 2.3 million people since the 2010 Census but has been nearly flat since 2017.
“It’s certainly a remarkable result given the broader history of the state, which has been just almost relentless population growth,” said Eric McGhee, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California who studies political redistricting. “The state has just been booming almost since Day One, so to have it be slowing down this much is really historically unprecedented.”
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That means influence will shift to faster-growing states such as Florida and Texas, where business-friendly policies and lower costs of living have fueled high-octane growth over the past decade. Texas gained two seats while Florida added one.
Texas politicians have long sought to woo California residents and businesses. During the pandemic, companies like Oracle and Hewlett Packard Enterprise announced plans to relocate headquarters to from California to Texas.
“There will be gloating — political gloating — I can guarantee it,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor of public policy communication at the University of Southern California.
The California Republican Party immediately threw blame for the loss on Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democrats, who hold a supermajority in the state Legislature.
“California is the capital of homelessness and poverty, suffocating gas and income tax rates, and the highest number of residents picking up and moving to more affordable and welcoming states," party chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson said in a statement. “Californians will have one less voice to speak for us in Washington, which proves yet again that it’s time for change and real leadership."
In response to the numbers, Newsom noted the state is still the nation's most populous and he pointed to its economic strength and diversity as positive points.
“We will continue to have strong representation in D.C. and California will continue to be a leader for the rest of the nation," he said.
California's loss of a House seat also means a possible dip in federal funding for Medi-Cal, the health insurance program for low-income people, as well as less money for highways, schools and a wide array of social services that are based on population.
But Paul Mitchell of Redistricting Partners, noted the loss of one seat in a state with more than 50 is not as significant as a loss would be in a smaller state with fewer seats.
“The loss is, in a relative sense, a lot smaller," he said.
The number of seats in Congress is fixed at 435 and the Census Bureau uses a population-based formula to decide how many seats each state gets. That means if one state loses, another one gains.
More U.S. residents moving out of California than into the state is just one factor driving California’s slower growth, though demographers say more data is needed to understand who has left and why in recent years. In fact, California has lost more residents to other states than it’s gained for all but three of the past roughly 30 years, McGhee said.
Those losses typically are offset by international immigration into the state, something that’s slowed in recent years, he said. Births also are declining while deaths are increasing, a phenomenon across the U.S. that’s slightly faster in California.
Just because California’s growth has slowed doesn’t mean the state is in decline.
“California tends to go through boom and bust cycles,” said Beth Jarosz, a senior research associate at the Population Reference Bureau.
The growth in recent years has been historically low. Since the last census, California’s population grew 6.1%, which ranked 24th nationally.
Bob Shrum, director of University of Southern California's Dornsife Center for the Political Future, said he expects the overall impact of the loss of a congressional seat to be marginal, even on federal funding. That’s because California will still have far more seats than any other state.
“It will be a blip,” he said. “It will be talked about by Republicans and (Gov.) Greg Abbott in Texas, but it won’t make any fundamental difference to the fortunes and future of the state.”
Now that the number of congressional seats is known, states can embark on the decennial process of redrawing congressional maps, known as redistricting. That process won’t start until late summer or fall because of a delay in releasing neighborhood-level population data.
California is among several states that use a commission to draw state legislative and congressional districts. Voters in 2008 created an independent Citizens Redistricting Commission that took the power to draw the lines away from the state Legislature. The group has already begun a months-long process of seeking community feedback and taking other input.
It has not yet decided if it will try to tweak the maps or start from scratch, said Sara Sadhwani, a member of the commission and assistant professor of politics at Pomona College.
That means for now, it’s too soon to know how the lines will change and which incumbent politicians could lose their seats or find themselves fighting with colleagues to stay in Congress.