BEND, Ore. – The last time Oregon saw more people leaving than moving into the state was the 1980s, during a decline in the timber industry.
“People actually packed up and left,” said Josh Lehner, economist with the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. In 1982 and 1983, so many people left, the population declined. People continued to move away through 1986, but the birth rate made up for those losses.
With fast-growing Deschutes County attracting enough newcomers to inspire bumper stickers like “Bend sucks, don’t move here,” it can be hard to imagine a replay of the 1980s. But that’s what the economic analysis office is asking state policymakers to do. In a little more than a decade – 2029 – Oregon’s death rate will outpace the birth rate, and the state will be entirely dependent on newcomers for its population growth.
“If these people don’t show up, what would that look like?” Lehner said.
In Bend and Deschutes County, it would mean a lot fewer seniors and children. The population of people 65 and older has exploded during the local economic recovery, growing 30 percent from 2011 through 2016, according to Portland State University. The senior population gained more than 7,100 people, nearly as many as the working-age population.
“That was definitely migration,” said Todd Dunkelberg, executive director of the Deschutes Public Library system. The library is trying to decide how to catch up with that growth while not counting on it to continue forever, he said.
“Something could happen. Maybe a retirement haven opens somewhere that’s even more attractive,” Dunkelberg said.
The libraries are also a good place to witness Bend’s other migration trend: families with children. Deschutes County’s child population grew 8 percent from 2011 to 2016, much faster than the state average.
“Bend doesn’t get the 20-year-olds, but they get the 30- and 40-year-olds with little kids,” Lehner said.
Although Bend attracts a lot of young families, they’re neither numerous enough nor multiplying fast enough to reverse the trend.
County-level forecasts are not as precise or updated as the statewide population forecast. The latest estimate shows deaths outpacing births in Deschutes County between 2030 and 2035.
Hazel Chapple was among several parents browsing the shelves of the downtown Bend library children’s section Wednesday afternoon. She thinks Bend will continue to attract newcomers, but only those from more expensive real estate markets. As long as home prices outstrip wages, she said, “It’s going to be harder and harder for working families to move here,” she said.
Another parent, Lindsay Woodward, moved to Bend in 1999. She was able to get a bachelor’s degree, start a career and buy a house. As a preschool teacher raising a 6-year-old and expecting a second child, she said she doesn’t know how she and her husband would repeat their move to Bend today. “I wouldn’t be able to afford to,” she said.
Oregon has a strong track record of attracting newcomers, especially young, college-educated people, but unaffordable housing makes the state less competitive, Lehner said. “When it comes to surveys of why people move, it’s for jobs and housing. We don’t have very good affordability. It’s no longer getting worse, but it’s still bad,” he said.
Behind the decline
Many states are seeing a natural decline in population, and the trend has been on Oregon’s radar for years. State economists recently updated their forecast and saw the tipping point had moved forward, Lehner said.
So much of Oregon’s economic growth stems from population gains that becoming migration-dependent poses a risk to the economy, he said.
“Every year, it becomes a bigger issue than we thought it would be,” Lehner said.
And there’s no reversing the birth rates and death rates behind the decline. Oregon’s fertility rate, which ranked 44th out of 50 states and Washington, D.C., in 2015, has been dropping steeply since 2000, said Nicholas Chun, population forecast program coordinator at Portland State. Oregon women had an average 1.72 children in 2015, down from an average 1.98 in 2000.
And Hispanic women, who historically had much higher fertility rates, are mirroring the general population, Chun said. Their fertility rate dropped from an average 3.15 in 2000 to 2.14 in 2015. At the same time, deaths are increasing with the aging of baby boomers, age 53 to 71.
Oregon has a larger share of boomers 65 and older than other states, “which suggests we expect deaths to ramp up sooner rather than later,” Chun said.
The trend in birth and death rates is easy to overlook in Central Oregon. Deschutes and Crook counties posted the two fastest rates of population growth in the state from July 2016 to July 2017, according to Portland State’s Population Research Center. Deschutes County grew from 176,635 people to 182,930, or 3.6 percent. Crook County grew from 21,580 people to 22,105, a 2.4 percent increase.
When it comes to natural population growth, many Oregon counties, including Crook County, have gone into negative territory, Lehner said. Rural counties know what it’s like to have to make concessions to draw new industry, jobs and people, said Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte.
“Prineville is a great example,” he said. With tax incentives, cooperation from all levels of government and utility companies, Prineville attracted Facebook and Apple data centers that have generated hundreds of construction jobs, he said.
Oregon could shore up its future as a relocation destination by changing the land-use system to allow more housing, McLane said.
“Unless you’re going to pay a wage to somebody to show up to work in Bend, they’re going to go somewhere where they can afford to live,” he said. “That is going to hurt us in the long run.”
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