Here They Come: Oregon’s Net Migration

by Damon Runberg

July 3, 2018

Back in April Portland State University (PSU) released population estimates for 2017. These population figures are important for us to understand the growth we are seeing in the state and more specifically within individual counties and incorporated cities and towns. When these figures are released most gravitate to the raw population total or the rate of growth from the previous year. However, our friends at PSU’s Population Research Center also provide more granular data that help us better understand the drivers of population growth across the state, in particular, net migration.

It would surprise no one to find out that the major driver behind Oregon’s population gains over the past several years is net migration rather than natural increase. Net migration is the difference between the number of folks who moved into the state and those who moved out. Natural increase is the difference between births and deaths. Oregon has largely been a net importer of people since the days of the Oregon Trail.
Going back to 1960, Oregon posted negative net migration just three times (1982, 1983, and 1986). Except for those years around the big 1980s recession Oregon added more people from outside Oregon each year than the number who left the state. 2017 was no exception with the state netting 56,820 residents due to migration. This was the largest net migration in a single year since 1991 (+63,160).

Net migration is largely tied to economic conditions in Oregon. If there are jobs available we tend to see a large surge in the population due to in-migration. The inverse is also true. The years with the lowest levels of net migration were during recessionary periods when unemployment was high and fewer job opportunities existed.

Around 87 percent of our population growth in the past year was due to net migration. We continue to see population growth from natural increase. However, the combination of an aging population and declining family size is generally leading to a decreasing rate of natural increase. Back in the 1980s the state averaged a natural increase of nearly 16,000 people each year. So far this decade we have averaged a natural increase of only 10,230 each year. Our natural increase is slower due to an acceleration of deaths. Compared with the 1980s the number of births each year is up by around 8 percent, whereas the number of deaths is up by 41 percent. As the pace of natural increase slows we are increasingly relying on net migration for population growth.  
Maintaining a strong pace of population growth is particularly important today. Unemployment rates in the State of Oregon are at an all-time low (4.1% as of May 2018). In the past year Oregon businesses had nearly 60,700 vacancies at any given time. Of those vacancies, 64 percent were identified as difficult to fill. The number one reason identified for these difficult-to-fill vacancies was simply a lack of applicants. There are real labor constraints in today’s market with businesses unable to find workers for their job openings. Net migration is one of Oregon’s competitive advantages as we have historically been able to attract new residents to the state, expanding the labor force. Despite this being one of our competitive advantages there are a few trends that threaten our ability to maintain these high levels of net migration. Housing affordability and availability top the list as many communities across the state need additional housing units, particularly those at a reasonable price.


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