Newcomers from out of state are fueling more of Utah’s population growth as the state slips further from its onetime status as the nation’s No. 1 baby destination.
Those new in town account for nearly half of statewide growth in the last year, when the Beehive State ticked up 1.64% — about 53,000 people — for a total of nearly 3.3 million, according to new estimates from the Utah Population Committee.
Utah claimed the highest fertility rate in the nation as recently as 2014. But it has since fallen to fourth place behind the Dakotas and Alaska, with a rate of 2.026 births per woman ages 15-44, according to 2018 data, the most recent available.
The rate isn’t tied to the medical factors that could affect a particular woman’s chances of getting pregnant. Rather, it’s a measure of how many women of typical childbearing age are having kids, and how many they’re having.
The downward trend is a slow but significant shift for Utah, where natural increase — births measured against deaths — long spurred most of Utah’s population growth, said demographer Emily Harris with the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. The rate has now declined for seven years in a row, mirroring a national decline.
As Utah women are waiting longer to have children and ultimately having fewer, the number of births has dipped to the lowest point since 1999, hovering above 46,500 for this fiscal year. But the drop is also tied in large part to a decline in teenagers having babies, Harris said.
“We don’t really think there’s going to be a rebound in fertility,” Harris told the Deseret News. “This seems to be fairly stable, but we’re kind of waiting to see what happens over the next few years.”
Some demographers have predicted births will decline further during the economic downturn as would-be parents wait out financial uncertainty like they did in the 2008 recession. But Harris doesn’t expect Utah to join the states counting more deaths than births anytime soon.
“Utah still has the fourth-highest fertility rate in the nation,” Harris said at a Thursday news conference. “We don’t really see natural increase being an issue anytime soon, based on the data we’ve seen.”
Her report considers change over the decade prior to July 2020, so it doesn’t capture the full effects of the pandemic. While some people working remotely have moved to Utah, it’s not certain whether they will remain for years to come.
Over the 10-year period, newcomers contributed about 35% of growth. And more moved in last year, including many from neighboring states and from California, accounting for 48% of growth in the last year, a high for the decade.
In Utah County, more than half of the roughly 19,000 new residents moved from outside the county’s borders for the second year in a row. No other county drew more newcomers.
But families there are still welcoming kids, too, according to the report that relied on federal tax and school enrollment data, plus building permits and membership numbers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“What we’re seeing in Utah County is they have the highest natural increase and the highest net migration in the state this year,” Harris said. “So they’ve just got people coming from everywhere.”
The state’s fastest-growing county, Washington County, swelled more than 4% in the past year, with about 9 in 10 new residents from other states or other parts of Utah.
“A lot of our counties are growing rapidly, and it’s from people moving in,” Harris said.
Just two rural counties had fewer residents compared to a year earlier: Emery and Grand counties both declined as people moved away.
Population boom continues in sunny St. George
With its year-round sunshine, sprawling golf courses and red rock vistas, the city has long drawn retirees. It has been more difficult to recruit younger workers, including those in medical or other fields catering to its aging population, said St. George Mayor Jon Pike.
“I think it’s very urgent,” Pike told the Deseret News. “We’ve really had to try to diversify our economy so that unlike in so many other rural places, our greatest export wouldn’t be our children. That’s been the focus for long since before I was the mayor.”
City leaders are trying to attract companies, including those in technology and aerospace, that can help diversify the community of about 90,000. In one move to do so, Pike said the city is selling its former airport to developers now creating a business park flanked by shops, apartments and condos, with public walking and bike paths.
That’s in addition to plans to conserve water, boost public transit offerings and build affordable housing for those not able to tap into 401(k) accounts.
A Utah County community must rush to keep pace
In Vineyard, the nation’s fastest-growing city, Mayor Julie Fullmer estimates the population has shot up by more than a third since 2019, to about 18,000. The newcomers vary from retirees and young, growing families to single working people and students, she said.
To keep pace with the rush, the city built three elementary schools in the last five years.
And like in wider Utah County, they’re coming from all over, Fullmer said. She believes the growth, while explosive, is encouraging.
“It represents a place people see as having high quality of life with connection to strong job markets and higher education,” Fullmer said.
She and other city leaders don’t expect any breaks in the rapid homebuilding, she added, and they’re eager to see a planned Utah Transit Authority FrontRunner station open next year.