In the 2010s, Washington was one of the fastest-growing states in the nation. We had a net gain of about 890,000 residents over the course of the decade, which pencils out to a 13% rate of growth. Only eight states grew faster.
But the latest population numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau show those days are over, at least for now. Data released last week shows Washington’s growth slowed dramatically during the pandemic, and in a reversal from the previous decade, we are no longer gaining residents from other U.S. states.
From July 1, 2020, to July 1, 2021, Washington’s population grew by about 19,900, for a nominal growth rate of 0.3%. We ranked only in the middle of the pack for growth, at 24th among the 50 states.
The year before — from July 1, 2019, to July 1, 2020 — Washington grew by a little more than 100,000 people. The rate of growth was 1.2% that year, which is around four times faster than the most recent numbers.
To be fair, most states saw growth slow in 2021, largely the result of the pandemic. The coronavirus increased the number of deaths, of course. But the pandemic affected population growth in other ways, too. It stemmed immigration from other countries. And while birthrate was already on the decline in the United States, the pandemic appears to have led to a lower number of pregnancies.
The total population of the United States increased only by about 392,000, which marks the first time the nation grew by less than 1 million people in a single year since 1937, when we were mired in the Great Depression.
Even though Washington’s growth rate slowed, we are still growing. Sixteen states can’t make that claim. New York saw the biggest rate of decline, losing 1.6% of its population — nearly 320,000 people.
At the other end of the spectrum, Idaho had the highest rate of population growth, at 2.8% (about 53,000 people). Texas had the largest numeric growth, adding about 310,000 residents.
There are only two ways that a population can grow — through migration from other states and countries, and by “natural increase” (the number of births minus the number of deaths). The Census Bureau breaks down these components of growth for all the states.
The most surprising number for Washington is the net domestic migration — that is, the number of people who moved here minus the number who moved away, within the United States.
Domestic migration was a big part of Washington’s growth before the pandemic took hold. In 2019 alone, Washington gained 37,000 people through domestic migration (in other words, the number of people who moved to Washington from other states exceeded the number who moved away by 37,000).
Among the 50 states, Washington had the seventh-highest domestic migration total from 2010 to 2019, at 336,000.
As for domestic migration last year, it was basically a wash. The Census Bureau estimates a net loss of 29 people in Washington from domestic migration between 2020 and 2021, but that decline is so small as to be insignificant. Even so, it shows that, at least for now, we’re not gaining any residents from other states.
Unfortunately, the Census Bureau only provides a figure for the net change — we can’t tell from that number if there has been an increase in people leaving the state, or a decline in the number moving in. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.
The data also doesn’t indicate where people go when they leave Washington, nor where they come from when they move here.
International migration has also decreased during the pandemic, but Washington still gained a little over 9,000 new residents that way last year. (In 2019, that number was about 24,000).
And that leaves natural increase, which was just over 10,000 from 2020 to 2021. That number is also down from the pre-pandemic era (in 2019, for example, natural increase was about 29,000). Even so, Washington gained slightly more people from natural increase than it did from migration last year — and that’s highly unusual.
Here’s how the natural increase breaks down:
From 2020 to 2021, about 81,000 babies were born in the state. That’s down from pre-pandemic years, but not massively so — for example, in 2019, there were 88,000 births.
The number of deaths increased, as you’d expect, but was still smaller than the number of births. Last year, nearly 71,000 people in the state died, which is significantly higher than the 59,000 deaths in 2019.
Unlike Washington, many states had a natural decrease rather than an increase last year, as the coronavirus added to the number of deaths and suppressed the birthrates.
Twenty-five of the 50 states had more deaths than births from 2020 to 2021. The state with the biggest natural decrease was Florida, where 45,000 more people died than were born last year.
In 2019, only four states had a natural decrease: Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and West Virginia.