State of change: Minorities now driving more of Utah's population growth than white people

White people are no longer responsible for the majority of Utah's population growth.

Racial and ethnic minorities in the Beehive State contributed slightly more than half — 52% — of roughly 508,000 new faces in the last decade, according to 2020 census data out this week.

It's a development Utah's top demographer, Pamela Perlich, called "stunning." She said the development is further confirmation of the state's changing profile as grows faster than any other.

"Over time, a greater and greater share of the growth has come from diverse populations," Perlich said. "That has been cumulative. That has been ongoing, and it is absolutely irreversible."

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In the decade prior, minorities fueled about 40% of change, said Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. That was up from 35% during the 1990's.

In the past, Perlich and her colleagues estimated Utah's population by making the demographic equivalent of Xerox copies, she said, replicating the same household throughout the state: "one white man, one white woman, 3.2 white kids."

"It's not that way anymore at all," Perlich said, noting Utah's white population is aging as young people of diverse backgrounds fall in love and start families. "There's much more diversity around household types, living arrangements, the aging of the population, cultural, racial, ethnic diversity in Utah sweeping the state."

The growth includes children born during the decade, along with those who moved to the state, whether they came to start a new job, be closer to family, or to live in place, where they can explore untold summits, crags and rivers.

The overall trend toward greater diversity isn't playing out evenly across Utah, Perlich noted. Communities on Salt Lake County's west side — including Kearns, West Valley and Taylorsville, are becoming less and less white. Salt Lake City, however, saw a dip in Hispanic residents and those identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native as it gained white people over the last 10 years. Some rural counties, like Beaver and Cache, recorded greater diversity.

Utah's population — at 3.2 million — still remains mostly white. Three out of 4 residents are neither Hispanic nor racial minorities.

But change is undeniable. The number of who identify as more than two races or some other race tripled in the time frame, growing more rapidly than any other group, to a total of more than 80,300. Upcoming releases from the U.S. Census Bureau will provide further information based on details they listed on their survey forms last year.

When sheer numbers are considered, Hispanic Utahns added the most of any minority group, contributing more than 134,500 people.

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Representation, not just raw numbers, plays a role in the change.

The report points to greater numbers of Pacific Islanders in the state, up 50% in the decade-long period, to 35,800. But the change doesn't reflect growth in the community so much as a more complete count, said Lita Sagato, president-elect for the Utah chapter of OCA Asian Pacific Islander American Advocates. The community still remains small, at just over 1% of Utah's total population.

Sagato said the surge is due to a push to count as many people in the group as possible, an effort led in large part by Margarita Satini, the community organizer and advocate for Utah's Pacific Islanders who succumbed to COVID-19 last year.

Satini was intent on making sure the group had access to testing and was counted in a survey that helps determine how much federal money flows to schools, hospitals and city projects like roads. Her colleagues are now working to share accurate information about vaccines.

"We all continue to mourn," Sagato said, "but keeping busy doing her work has helped us."

Satini would be gratified to see the census numbers and her resolve would strengthen, Sagato said. She imagines her friend saying, "that shows us that we have more people to serve, more people to reach out to."

Sagato noted the count doesn't reflect the full picture of diversity in Utah. The number of Pacific Islanders in Utah is likely higher, but those of mixed heritage — someone who's Native Hawaiian and Korean, for example — aren't counted in Pacific Islander category. The census designates them as part of the group that's two or more races.

Some of the data points in the new release are puzzling to Perlich and her coworkers. For one, Salt Lake City's population didn't crack 200,000 as they had expected. The researchers also anticipated Utah County's growth would outpace Salt Lake County's, but that hasn't happened, yet. It's an indication that new households in Utah County are smaller than Perlich and her team anticipated. Further data releases in coming months will shed more light, she said.

"There's so many more questions that this raises than answers," Perlich said. "But at least we have some more pieces to the puzzle."