It’s a common refrain: Californians are moving here in droves, and they’re to blame for changes in Utah’s quality of life, traffic, overcrowding and skyrocketing home prices.

But how much of that is actually true? Who’s really living here in Utah — and how has that changed in recent years?

The reality is Utah is a top state in the West for its share of homegrown residents. An estimated 62% of Utah’s residents were born here, according to the latest 2020 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

That’s compared to Utah’s western neighbors with less than half of their residents homegrown. Consider Idaho, where 47% of residents were born there. Colorado and Wyoming both have an estimated 42.4% of homegrown residents. Nevada only has 26.7%, and Arizona has about 39.6%, according to Landgeist, which used 2019 census data to compile state-by-state estimates.

So what is it about Utah? Why does it stick out as a homegrown state in the West? Emily Harris, a demographic analyst at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said that’s likely because of Utah’s consistently young population compared to the rest of the nation. Big families have helped fuel the state’s rapid population growth and historically high fertility rate.

That means the majority of Utah’s growth over the years has come from natural growth. So move-ins from out of state aren’t all to blame for traffic woes and housing demand. It’s your kids and grandkids, too.

But even though Utah’s born-in-state population is currently relatively bigger than its western neighbors, changes have been brewing.

“Utah has been experiencing, for the last couple of decades now, some demographic shifts,” Harris said.

Utah was the fastest-growing state in the nation from 2010 to 2020, but it saw a “sharp drop in its fertility rate and a steady decline” in natural population increase, Harris wrote in a report for the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute published June of last year.

Yes, Utah, historically, has been a strong “homegrown state,” Harris said. But net migration “as a larger share of population growth in Utah has really been a more recent development, probably in the last five years.”

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In recent years, “robust migration to Utah has become a much more significant driver of its growth,” Harris wrote.

This is where the Californian blame game comes in — and while it’s not entirely true, it’s not completely false either.

Is it Californians’ fault or not?

Yes, California is the “largest single source of domestic in-migrants for Utah,” Harris wrote. From 2014 to 2018, California was responsible for the largest share of Utah’s domestic in-migration, according to her research.

“It’s very obvious that California is the largest state that is sending people to Utah,” she said.

But keep in mind, Harris said, this isn’t surprising given California’s sheer size. It’s the most populated state in the nation and has seen significant domestic net out-migration for decades, since 1990. Plus, Utah sits fairly close to the Golden State.

However — and this is important to note — Utah isn’t even in the top 10 states that have received the most migrants from California, Harris said.

Is California to blame for soaring home prices in Idaho and Utah?

Consider this: In 2018, Utah received about 18,000 Californians. That pales in comparison to the over 50,000 Californians that states like Arizona, Texas, Nevada and Washington received in the same year, according to Harris’ research.

So what if we adjust for population size and compare Utah to other states? Harris did that calculation, which gave a clearer view of the propensity of each state to send migrants to Utah, she wrote.

That revealed Utah’s northern neighbor, Idaho, sent the most population-adjusted migrants to Utah from 2014 to 2018 — 5.3 migrants per 1,000 residents. Wyoming was Utah’s next largest, population-adjusted supplier, with 3.02 migrants per 1,000 residents. California, by comparison, only sent 0.57 migrants per 1,000 residents.

California is Utah’s largest single source of domestic in-migrants — but this isn’t surprising since California is the most populated state in the nation and has had significant domestic net out-migration for decades. However, adjusted for population size, Idaho supplies Utah with more migrants on a per-capita basis.
California is Utah’s largest single source of domestic in-migrants — but this isn’t surprising since California is the most populated state in the nation and has had significant domestic net out-migration for decades. However, adjusted for population size, Idaho supplies Utah with more migrants on a per-capita basis. | Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, University of Utah

Will Utah be a ‘homegrown’ state for long?

Asked if Utah’s homegrown population could decline in coming years, given the decline of the state’s fertility rates and incline in migration, Harris said it’s possible but it’s too soon to say.

“It’s definitely something we’re watching,” she said.

“Utah in the last 10 years has been kind of at the tail end of being done with a birth wave, and we’re anticipating within the next three to five years an increase in births because of the age distribution of population,” she said, as more millennials enter childbearing ages.

Utah, like other states, goes through “ebbs and flows of births” or a fluctuation of natural population increases based on those birth waves, Harris explained.

“So I do anticipate that natural increase and net migration becoming more level, kind of even shares, of Utah’s population growth,” she said.

However, Harris added net migration is a more “volatile” indicator of change.

While births and natural growth is a more steady statistic to track, in-migration is trickier because “it can really change year-to-year based on whatever’s going on,” she said.

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Take what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many Americans reevaluated their lives as remote work became a more widespread possibility (at least for the middle- or upper-working class). In 2021, Utah saw a net migration of 34,853 — almost 10,000 more than the previous year’s estimate, according to population estimates released in December by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

“Natural increase is much more stable because births and deaths are a much more long-term process, whereas in-migration can really change year-to-year depending on what’s going on,” Harris said.

Typically recessions prompt Americans to stay where they are. The pandemic was an outlier.

“If there’s another large economic recession that isn’t super weird like COVID-19,” Harris said, “we would expect net migration — not just for Utah, but a lot of places — to go back down.”

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