State's population rises at lowest rate in 20 years

By Julia Sommerfeld
Seattle Times staff reporter

7/1/03

Washington State - After more than a decade of swift growth, Washington's population has hit the brakes.

The state's population grew by a slim 0.94 percent in the past year the lowest rate in 20 years according to estimates released yesterday by the state Office of Financial Management.

And while King, Pierce and Snohomish counties showed only modest gains, Franklin County in Southeast Washington bucked the trend with a 4.48 percent growth in the past year, fueled by economic growth brought by a $5.7 billion waste-cleanup project at the nuclear reservation.

Among demographers and economists, all fingers point to the state's lack of jobs.

"Most movers respond to job opportunities," said Theresa Lowe, the state's chief demographer, who released the report, "so growth is going to be slower until the economy improves."

Washington's jobless rate was 7.3 percent in May, tied with Alaska for second-worst in the nation.

The state's population hit 6,098,300 on April 1, up by 56,600 from the previous year. The 0.9 percent growth rate is the lowest level since 1983, when the state's population grew by only 0.7 percent. The two decades between these lows saw annual population growth at rates as high as 3.2 percent in 1991.

Of the 56,600 new Washington residents in that period, 63 percent were due to natural population increase, that is, the number of births minus deaths, and 37 percent were from net migration, the number of new people moving in minus those leaving.

The state's birth and death rates have remained fairly steady in recent years, leaving reduced migration into the state primarily responsible for the slowdown in growth, Lowe said.

Bruce Mann, an economics professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, said that's no surprise. The California transplants who Washington natives have been complaining about for years no longer are coming in droves, he said.

"Other areas from which we draw people, like California, have economies that are doing better than we are, so people are staying put," Mann said.



Connie Rivera, who moved to Seattle from Los Angeles 14 years ago, drawn by a slower pace and professional opportunities, is moving back as soon as she sells her Kirkland condominium.

"I'm not having much luck here," she says, referring to a maddening, two-year job search.

After first moving here, Rivera, 42, found temporary work almost immediately and had a full-time job in a few months. In the 1990s, she worked in public relations for technology companies and a small nonprofit organization but was laid off two years ago.

Since beginning a job search in the Los Angeles area, she's had good prospects, especially compared with the dearth of opportunities here, where, she said, she's often competing with hundreds of qualified applicants. She's survived by doing free-lance work.

Rivera said she'll miss the quality of life here, and especially the plentiful biking trails, but noted that in the past few years she's seen more smoggy days and traffic jams than when she first arrived.

"It will be different there, but the priority is getting a job, a good job," she said.

For some experts, the most surprising news from the new population data is that there's any growth at all.

"It's a miracle it isn't zero considering how bad the economy is," said Richard Morrill, a University of Washington demographer. "We would have predicted more out-migration, but instead there's a small gain because people are sticking around and waiting it out."

The decline in growth could even be good news for the area, Morrill suggested. "Slowing down is not necessarily a bad thing; it gives us a chance to catch up on infrastructure," he said.

The slower growth is expected to last through the next two years, state demographers predict, with a rebound dependent on how quickly Washington's economy recovers.

The forces driving the population changes differ across the state. The biggest county, King, was hit hard by the dot-com crash and airline recession and its growth crept along at 0.28 percent in the one-year period.

Smaller rural areas including Lincoln, Pacific and Asotin counties are showing the signs of aging populations and are actually seeing a decrease in people.

"Lincoln County is rooted in grain, but now with lagging grain prices we find ourselves in a situation where young people are leaving and a huge percentage of the population is over 65," said Pam Kelley, executive director of the Lincoln County Associate Development Organization.

Seattle Times staff reporter J. Patrick Coolican and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Julia Sommerfeld: 206-464-2708 or jsommerfeld@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

 

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