Inga Kiderra and Elisa Smith, UC San Diego
In the fall of 2020, as Elon Musk threatened to take Tesla to Texas, a popular narrative took hold and continues to this day: According to the story, the Golden State has grown tarnished. Masses of Californians are fed up and fleeing the state. That California’s population growth had slowed, causing it to lose a congressional seat for the first time in history, propelled the tale along. But a survey conducted by UC San Diego political scientists in the spring of 2021 contradicts this story.
The survey finds no increase, over 2019, in residents who say they plan to leave. And a companion report analyzing Google trends data suggests they aren’t secretly searching for move-related terms either.
This UC San Diego research is part of a larger multi-institution research project, led by the University of California, to assess in various ways whether there is in fact an exodus from California, or #CalExodus.
According to the UC San Diego survey of more than 3,000 Californians, sampled to represent the state’s demographics: 23 percent reported that they were seriously considering leaving California, which is slightly lower than the 24 percent found in a survey of registered voters conducted by UC Berkeley two years earlier.
This finding is consistent with research that UC San Diego did on Google search trends, which found no recent increases in how frequently Californians searched terms such as “moving company” or “U-Haul.”
Other findings in the UC San Diego survey include:
- By nearly a 2-to-1 margin, Californians respond that they still believe that “the California Dream works for people like me and my family.” But belief in that dream depends on demographics, economic status and partisan affiliation: Spanish speakers, Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and younger Californians are more optimistic, while middle-class Californians, white respondents, older residents and Republicans are more pessimistic.
- Those living in parts of the state that have not been part of recent economic expansions, including the Central Valley and northern counties outside of the Bay Area, are most likely to contemplate moving.
- Middle-class Californians making incomes between $50,000 and $100,000 are the most concerned about the state of California today as well as its future, while affluent Californians are the most satisfied with the state’s direction.
- Interestingly, growth is not a goal for most Californians. Asked to look ahead 10 years, 35 percent of respondents believe it would be better if the population decreases significantly and 46 percent want it to stay about the same. Only 19 percent of those surveyed said that the state would be better if its population increases.
“Most residents say that they still believe in the ‘California Dream,’” said Thad Kousser, chair of the political science department at UC San Diego, and the lead researcher of the 2021 survey. “Policymakers, including those trying to prevent an exodus, should focus more on those who are not as optimistic about the state’s direction, including many in the middle class facing steep housing costs and people from areas of the state facing the greatest economic challenges.”
The UC-led project investigating the so-called exodus is a research consortium designed to bring a fact-based, empirical approach to California’s population patterns, helping to inform state policy and public knowledge. In addition to UC San Diego, the project includes studies conducted by scholars at UC Berkeley and UCLA, as well as Cornell University and Stanford University. The research draws on many data sources: public opinion data, the U.S. Census, consumer credit histories, home ownership rates, venture capital investments, and information from the Franchise Tax Board. Taken together, the studies find no increase in residents moving away.