A Little Less California Dreamin’ These Days

When we moved to L.A. more than a decade ago, I came out on the train several days ahead of the rest of the family. I hadn’t seen very much of the West, and I thought it would be fun to roll into California by rail.

I can still remember leaving the vast nothingness of Texas, where we lived at the time, rumbling along the sunbaked U.S. border and snaking into the desert stillness of New Mexico and Arizona. One tends to get rather pensive after a few Heinekens in the club car, and I imagined myself joining a great continuum, tugged inescapably toward the continent’s edge--from Donner to Joad to Wartzman.

That scenic trip into the Golden State sprang to mind as I read Amy Wilentz’s piece on the famous female skeleton found in the tar pits along Wilshire Boulevard (“L.A. Woman,” page 22). Wilentz notes that La Brea Woman wasn’t part of the tribe that lived in the area. “But then, California is a place for foundlings,” she writes, “whether disconnected by accident or free on their own recognizance. La Brea Woman wandered in from nowhere.”

Indeed, many others, like me, have continued to wander in over the 9,000 years since. In 1962, California became the largest state in the country, shifting the “balance of the most powerful nation in the world . . . from the Atlantic to the Pacific,” in the words of then-Gov. Pat Brown. In one year alone--from July 1988 to July ’89--California’s population swelled by an astonishing 750,000. Last year, it rose by an additional 440,000 to 37.2 million.


In many ways, the numbers are fairly stable. Legal immigration from other countries typically adds about 140,000 people here a year. Illegal immigration accounts for 73,000 more. “Natural increase"--that is, births over deaths--contributes 300,000 annually.

The big variable--the one that says the most about California as an emblem of promise--is the flow from (and to) other states.

Right after that huge population jump in the late ‘80s, the California economy tanked. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands more people were leaving in U-Hauls than were arriving. The state still expanded but, in relative terms, barely: Its population increased by only 188,000 in 1995.

Things turned around during the new millennium, with domestic in-migration, as demographers call it, exceeding out-migration. Then last year, the trend reversed again. Quietly, for the first time since the 1990s, California lost more people to other states than it attracted--75,000 in all, according to the Department of Finance.


Hans Johnson, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, expects the pattern to hold. The main reason, he says, is that California’s cost of living has gotten too high for too many. “I’m not sure we’re ever going to go back to what we once looked like” as a population magnet vis-a-vis the other states, he says.

That’s too bad. Arizona Dreamin’ just doesn’t have the same ring somehow.