California Is Set to Lose a House Seat. What Now?

Tuesday: For the first time in California’s history, the state will lose congressional representation, based on new census data.,

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ImagePeople shopping at a flea market in Los Angeles in December.
People shopping at a flea market in Los Angeles in December.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

Good morning.

On Monday, the U.S. Census Bureau reported new numbers that reflected a nation in a period of profound flux: Over the past decade, our country’s population grew at its slowest rate since the 1930s, according to my colleagues Sabrina Tavernise and Rob Gebeloff.

California’s growth, too, has slowed to some of its lowest levels in recent years. And the report on the decennial census makes official what demographers have long predicted: California will lose a congressional seat for the first time in its 170-year history.

The state’s population increased by just 6.1 percent over the past decade, compared with a 7.4 national average, according to the census, whose count was disrupted last year by both the pandemic and the Trump administration. The state’s House delegation will shrink to 52 members.

Here’s more about what it all means for the Golden State:

Does California still have the most people?

Yes. Rest assured that California’s official population of 39,538,223 is still far and away the largest of any state, according to the census. Texas added the most new residents over the last decade, but it was still a distant second with about 29.1 million residents.

The least populous state, for reference, was Wyoming, with about 577,000 residents — less than half the population of the city of San Diego.

Why has California’s population growth slowed? How long has it been like this?

As my colleague Shawn Hubler wrote, it’s a major shift for California, which was long “America’s boomtown writ large.” The population almost doubled to that roughly 40 million figure in just the last four decades.

But, as in the rest of the nation, the state’s birthrates have plummeted. In California, the decline has been pronounced since the aftermath of World War II, when the state’s baby boom helped the state grow.

Demographers say that more recent generations waited longer to have families, as would-be parents faced rising costs of living and as education levels rose. The average age of becoming a parent in California rose to 31 by 2019 from 28 in 2010.

Out-of-control housing costs have also prompted a bigger share of California’s population to move elsewhere in the United States than the share who moved in from other states — although experts have cautioned that the trend hardly amounts to a death knell for the California Dream, as some in other states, like Texas, have suggested.

“You will know that California has truly crossed a line when home prices start falling,” Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of Beacon Economics, a consulting firm in Los Angeles, told me late last year.

And, well, home prices have done the opposite.

More recently — and particularly during the Trump administration — immigration slowed significantly. Immigration represented between 0.4 and 0.5 percent of California’s annual population increase through the first half of the decade, H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Finance, told Shawn. But starting in 2017, when President Donald J. Trump took office, that began to decline, to less than 0.1 percent last year.

If California is still growing, why is it going to lose a congressional seat?

As Eric McGhee, a political participation expert with the Public Policy Institute of California, explained early last year: “It’s a zero-sum game.”

Although for much of American history, seats were added freely to the House of Representatives, in 1911, the number was capped at 435.

Which means that your state can grow and still lose representation, if it doesn’t grow enough relative to other states.

In 2011, California’s number of representatives stayed flat for the first time, at 53. And while there were concerns about participation in the census last year for a host of reasons, demographers were already forecasting that the state could lose a seat.

What happens next?

Broadly, the shifts will redistribute political power across the country — although it remains to be seen what that will look like.

In California, the process of redistricting begins. It happens after each census, whether or not the state loses or gains representation. But experts have told me that this time, the members of the nonpartisan citizens commission empaneled to redraw the state’s congressional district boundaries will really have their work cut out for them.

For more:


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Demonstrators pushing for a recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom in Huntington Beach last November.Credit…Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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