Washington’s population growth appears to be picking up a bit of steam: the state added 88,600 new residents over the past year, according to the state Office of Financial Management (OFM). That was 20,000 more residents than the state added during the previous year. And compared with 2 years before, the pace of population growth increased even more, rising from .9 percent per year in 2002-2003, to 1.4 percent in 2004-2005. All in all, it’s a fairly signficant uptick.

  • Now, demographers look at two distinct trends when analyzing population growth: natural increase (births minus deaths), and net migration (in-migrants minus out-migrants). Most of uptick in growth last year stemmed from increased in-migration; on net, Washington attracted more newcomers over the past year than it had since 1997. And since new residents typically are attracted by jobs and rosy economic prospects, the OFM press release seems almost giddy about its news:

    Reflecting a stronger economy, Washington State’s population has grown by an estimated 88,600 people, or a healthy 1.4 percent, in the past year, Theresa Lowe, the state’s chief demographer, said Tuesday.

    Population growth hasn’t been this robust since the early 1990s, Lowe said. It compares to an increase in 2004 of 68,500, or 1.1 percent.

    But hold on a second there, bubs. The OFM describes an increase in population growth as “healthy” and “robust.” In other words, state officials are shilling for more new residents, and trying to get the press to cover rapid population growth as an unmitigated boon, rather than a mixed blessing.

    That, to me, is simply a conceptual error. An uptick in population growth may be a sign of a good thing (lower unemployment, or higher wages), but you can’t call it a good thing in itself.

    At its current pace, the state is growing fast enough to fill a city the size of Tacoma or Spokane in a little over two years. No matter how you slice it, that’s rapid change. And at last year’s growth rate—1.4 percent per year—the state will double in population before today’s newborns turn 50. That’s the problem with exponential growth; year-to-year change seems minimal, but over time it really adds up. Just take a look at the graph—in just over a century, the state’s population has multiplied twelve-fold. And that growth—and the attendant sprawl—has taken a toll on the lowland ecosystems of Puget Sound, on air quality, and so on.

    Setting aside for a moment the environmental concerns, it’s just not clear that population growth does any good for the economy. It certainly does benefit some sectors—the home building industry loves it. But growth has costs, too, including higher taxes to pay for new roads and schools (new development rarely pays its own way). More generally, as this Brookings Institution report details, fast population growth doesn’t necessarily bring an increase in overall economic wellbeing; some places with slower-than-average growth have faster-than-average increases in per capita income, and vice versa.

    In short, I simply don’t think it’s appropriate for the state OFM to take on a role as advocates for population growth—and I have to wonder what political forces are in play that can lead them to act more like cheerleaders than sober-minded analysts.

    Update: I fixed some typos and dangling sentences. Also, see here for our analysis of the OFM’s population growth figures.

    Further update: Ok, I just took a closer look at the OFM’s actual figures for the components of population growth (see this pdf), and the only thing I can make of it is that the OFM press release is pure politics.

    According to the chief demographer, “Population growth hasn’t been this robust since the early 1990s.” But look: the percent growth rate was the same in 2001 and 1999, and higher in 1998. Similarly, the absolute (not percent) population growth numbers were higher in 1997 and 1996, as were the net migration figures. All were substantially higher than in the early 1990s. So what they meant by “robust” or “early 1990s” is a mystery to me.

    Which suggests to me that the OFM press release was mostly an opportunity for some needless, unhelpful, and frankly disingenuous puffery. Grrr.