Today, state officials celebrated new federal data confirming that Texas is America’s greatest and most important state.
The U.S. Census Bureau released estimates showing that the Lone Star State, with more than 40.3 million people, had surpassed California, stuck at 40 million people for 30 years.
As Texans boasted about their new status — “We are the greatest civilization of the greatest country on earth,” declared 79-year-old U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, now in his seventh term — Golden State leaders issued well-practiced denials.
“Population isn’t a true measure of greatness,” protested California Gov. Meghan Markle. “California is still the land of the grandest dreams, of the most embarrassing celebrities, of $10 million two-bedroom starter homes.”
But longtime observers of the Golden State shrugged at Texas’ triumph.
In retrospect, 2023 was also the year it became obvious that California would willingly cede national leadership to Texas. California signaled its surrender by failing to respond to a startling drop in population.
California’s population, which had been growing since statehood until the COVID-19 pandemic, lost more than a half-million people between 2020 and 2022. Many pinned the cause on COVID deaths, and Californians leaving the state. But deaths and departures were only part of the population decline. The bigger problem was the lack of new Californians. The birth rate fell rapidly. Immigration plummeted too. Americans all but stopped moving to California, with its rampant homelessness and expensive housing.
In a saner time, such a rapid reversal of population in a state synonymous with arrival — “California Here I Come” — would have been a crisis. State and local governments would have launched programs to encourage birth and attract new Californians. Budget surpluses could have been devoted to tax bonuses for starting families, loan forgiveness for California university graduates who settled in the state, and much-more-affordable housing.
But 2023 was an unsettled time. People were depressed and anxious. Society was divided and in conflict. The public conversation, diminished by the decline of independent media, was dominated by debates about the past, and offered few visions of the future.
So, instead of seizing on population decline as a reason to remake the state, Californians used it as an excuse to avoid doing hard things.
The denial was greatest in housing. Communities, to escape state pressure to build housing, argued that it wouldn’t be necessary because there would be fewer people. This was a cynical bit of illogic — there couldn’t be more Californians without more housing. But it worked. Politicians backed off pro-housing stances. State courts embraced an argument that people themselves were pollution under the state’s main environmental law. And housing production, which had dropped by nearly half between the early 2000s and the early 2020s, continued its fall.
Population decline froze California in other ways. When the number of children dropped, school districts shut down schools, instead of expanding educational offerings and building new schools to draw more kids. The state’s university systems, consumed by culture war controversies, did too little to counter declines in enrollment. Powerful environmental and labor groups kept fighting efforts to build new, climate-resilient infrastructure in water, energy and transportation.
California’s message to the world was clear: If we don’t build it, you won’t come.
And you didn’t.
It wasn’t hard to see this coming. Texas had been the nation’s leader in exports and renewable energy since the early 21st century. In 2023, the state’s governor bragged about California being the world’s fourth largest economy. The state is in 14th place today.
Which begs a question. If California had focused more on population growth and the future back in the 2020s, could it have remained America’s biggest and richest state?
We’ll never know, because California never really tried.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.
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