It’s often seen as a marker of an area’s demographic health: more births than deaths. But recently, a record number of Washington counties have been seeing the opposite.
According to population data released earlier this month by the Washington Office of Financial Management, more than two-thirds of Washington’s counties — 27 out of 39 — recorded more deaths than births, also called a “natural decrease,” from April 1, 2021, to April 1, 2022. That’s the highest number of counties with more deaths than births since the state began collecting data in 1960.
Overall, though, the state had a natural increase, meaning there were more births than deaths. Around 84,600 people were born in Washington, and 70,500 state residents died — that pencils out to a net increase of just over 14,000. That was largely due to growth in the Seattle area. King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties all had natural increases; combined, the three counties had about 14,300 more births than deaths.
Census data shows that the majority of U.S. counties experienced more deaths than births in 2021, and this trend started even before the pandemic. In Washington, too, the number of counties with a natural decrease has been on a slow rise over the past couple decades.
Back in the 1990s and earlier, fewer than 10 Washington counties would experience a natural decrease in any given year, OFM data shows. The last time all 39 of the state’s counties experienced a natural increase was 1983-1984.
But in recent years, the birthrate has dropped in the U.S., and census data shows that women are having fewer children and having their first child later in life.
An aging population also results in a greater number of deaths and fewer births. Census data shows seven Washington counties have a median age higher than 50, and all seven had a natural decrease. The county with the state’s highest median age is Jefferson, where Port Townsend is located, with a median age of 59. Some counties saw higher median ages as younger people moved to cities in other counties, likely in part because of economic troubles in some rural areas.
In the April 1, 2019, to April 1, 2020 period, 16 Washington counties had a natural decrease, which was a record number at that time. Then, as COVID-19 spread across the state, the number of deaths increased. Now, 11 more counties have shown a natural decrease.
It’s worth noting that COVID and aging populations aren’t the only reasons the number of deaths increased in some parts of the state. As I’ve written in my column, we’ve also seen a surge in so-called “deaths of despair” — those related to alcohol and drug abuse, and from suicide.
Births and deaths are just two components of population change. The third is migration, and OFM data shows growth from migration in nearly every county in the state from 2021 to 2022.
The one exception is Adams County in Eastern Washington, which had a tiny net loss of 26 due to migration. But Adams had 226 more births than deaths, so the county’s total population still grew.
In fact, only one county had a loss of total population: Clallam, where Port Angeles is located, shrank by 125 residents this year. While Clallam grew some from migration, those gains were wiped out by a natural decrease of around 700, the highest in the state.
In two Eastern Washington counties — Columbia and Garfield — the population was unchanged. Both these counties also had a natural decrease, but saw growth from migration.
Statewide, the population increased by 97,400, bringing the total to 7.86 million. Since around 14,000 of that population gain came from natural increase, the remaining 83,300 was from net migration.