Come to California If You Want to Live

The Golden State’s Focus on Education, Health Care, and Gun Control Creates a Gold Standard for Longevity

California has its shortcomings, but columnist Joe Mathews explains why the Golden State outshines most of the nation in life expectancy. Cropped version of “Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio” painting (1980) by David Hockney. Courtesy of Rob Corder/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED).

Come to California if you want to live.

That’s my New Year’s suggestion for a new state slogan. California is losing population for the first time since it became a state. The cause of the problem is not people leaving—in fact, our levels of departures, as percentage of population, are among the very lowest in the nation. Rather, the problem is that so few people are moving here.

The biggest reason for that is well known: The cost of living in the Golden State is among America’s highest. But less well known is that our high costs buy you more living. Literally. On average, Californians live to 79, which beats the American average by more than two years, along with the average of all but three other states.

Historically, California was middling in life expectancy. But during the 21st century, federal data has ranked it at or near the very top of the 50 states. Lately, only Hawai‘i residents, who reach an average 80.7 years, have lived longer. Our biggest metro areas are among the healthiest places in the country. The Bay Area ranks second in life expectancy nationally, and Los Angeles third.

Nor do you have to spend your whole life here to gain the extra time. Stanford and MIT researchers have found that moving to California even after age 65 can increase your life span by more than a year, or 5%.

Why do we live longer? There are many reasons. Wealthier, higher-income states with relatively high levels of education—like California—tend to rank highest in life expectancy. Money, after all, buys more access to better health care, and California’s rich people live near some of the world’s best hospitals and highest-quality health systems.

Healthy behavior helps. The percentage of us who smoke is lower than that of any state besides Utah. Our obesity rate is the fourth-lowest in the U.S. We have some of the country’s lowest rates of infant mortality and suicide.

The cost of living in the Golden State is among America’s highest. But less well known is that our high costs buy you more living. Literally.

Our more liberal public policy counts too. California’s strong environmental protections for air and water help us live longer. Gun control keeps many of us alive—we have the eighth-lowest rate of gun deaths and gun ownership. A new study from the gun control non-profit Everytown for Gun Safety finds that the Golden State has the strongest gun laws in the country. If every other state copied our regulations, the study found, nearly 300,000 lives could be saved over the next decade.

Then there’s our nation-leading commitment to health care coverage. This month, California became the first state in the union to make all unauthorized immigrants eligible for Medi-Cal, California’s name for the federal health care program Medicaid. With this move, Golden State becomes the first state to expand Medicaid to cover all low-income residents. That portends even longer lives for future Californians, since low-income populations usually have the highest mortality rates.

The news is not all good. California saw its life expectancy drop below 80 years during the pandemic. But the overall U.S. life expectancy dropped even further, to just over 76 years. And there is a significant disparity—approaching 7 years—in expected life span between residents of California’s urban and suburban coastal counties, and those who live in the rural North State and Central Valley.

Frustratingly, California also lags in rankings of mental health services—which is one reason that Prop 1, a $6.38 billion mental health measure, is on the March ballot. And the state has failed to reduce the number of people in the state who are unhoused, a life circumstance that according to a UCSF study makes you 16 times more likely to die suddenly.

California also struggles to prevent deadly drug use, especially among young people. A new “report card” on California from the advocacy coalition Children Now gives the state a “D-” on substance abuse prevention, saying that California’s “unfocused” plan offers little in early intervention “and instead requires kids to ‘fail first’ before getting the help they need.”

Of course, the other states also struggle with drugs, mental health, and homelessness, and many of them offer less in services and support than we do. The statistics demonstrate that California, for all its failures, is a great place to settle if your goal is to stick around awhile on earth.

And if my formulation—“Come to California if you want to live”—seems too sharp, then the state might instead borrow a line from the comedian Mort Sahl, who spent his later years in Marin County, whose residents enjoy the state’s longest life expectancy (more than 83 years).

“You haven’t lived,” Sahl said, “until you’ve died in California.”

He died in 2021, in Mill Valley, at age 94.


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