Minorities now make up nearly a quarter of Utah’s population — and the actual number may be higher

Hispanics account for 15% of the state as the state grows more diverse.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dancers in the third annual Hispanic Heritage Parade and Street Festival in Salt Lake City, Saturday Sept. 22, 2018. Hispanics now account for 15.1% of Utah's population.

As the number of white Americans dropped for the first time since the U.S. census began, Utah has also become more diverse in the past 10 years, new population figures show.

The state’s Hispanic or Latino population rose by nearly 38%, a much larger jump than the 23% increase in the nation as a whole. The number of people identifying as two or more races soared by nearly 146% compared to 2010, with these individuals emerging as the third-largest racial group in the state (after whites and Hispanics). And almost every other nonwhite racial group has also gone up as a share of the population over the past 10 years, according to 2020 data released Thursday.

“Almost a quarter of our population is identifying outside of that non-Hispanic white population,” said Mallory Bateman, senior research analyst and State Data Center coordinator with the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. “That’s pretty huge.”

These demographic shifts are taking place across the nation as the number of whites counted in the census has seen an unprecedented decline. And yet, it is unfolding somewhat differently in Utah, which is still seeing the number of white residents climb — albeit more slowly than other racial and ethnic groups.

Utah was second only to Washington, D.C., in the percentage growth of its non-Hispanic or non-Latino white population, which has risen by 11% since 2010. In a majority of states, all but 16, the white population shrank.

Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a former Utah House member who served on the state’s Complete Count Committee for the census, said having an accurate picture of Utah’s racial and ethnic makeup is essential for everything from education to the type of public health outreach necessitated by COVID-19. And while she celebrates the increased diversity reflected in the updated demographic data, she remains concerned that certain marginalized populations might be underrepresented in these figures.

“The question for me,” she said, “is who got missed?”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

‘The complexity of who we are’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rebecca Chavez-Houck, shown in 2020, fears people of color are still being undercounted in the census.

Utah’s population has diversified since 2010 but not by as much as some other states, according to a U.S. Census Bureau index based on the odds that two randomly selected people will have a different race or ethnicity.

The state’s index score jumped from 33.6% to 40.7% between the two decennial counts — yet it fell three spots in the overall national ranking to come in as the 37th most diverse state.

Whites now represent 75.4% of the state’s population, compared to 80.4% in 2010. But bucking the national trend, they still grew in number in Utah.

Bateman said that might be because of Utah’s comparative youth and the fact that many residents are still having children.

“In a lot of areas, like the Northeast, you have older white people that are no longer in childbearing years. They’re not having kids,” she said. “To be really bleak, they’re dying. But here, the families are still growing.”

Still, she noted, Utah’s white population isn’t growing as quickly as some other racial and ethnic groups in the state. The population of non-Hispanic or non-Latino whites rose by 11% — or about 244,000 — over the past 10 years, while the Hispanic or Latino population shot up by about 38% — or 135,000 individuals.

Hispanics or Latinos, the largest minority group, account for 15.1% of the state’s residents. That’s up from 13% in 2010.

After white and Hispanic and Latino residents, the next largest group of Utahns was those identifying as two or more races. This group expanded by about 71,500 individuals in the past 10 years and now accounts for about 3.7% of all residents.

Bateman and Chavez-Houck said part of this increase could be driven by changes in census questioning and data coding aimed at better capturing the way people describe themselves.

“You saw more distinctions, because people have the opportunity to really see themselves in the census,” Chavez-Houck said, “and to really identify the intersectionality, the complexity of who we are as people who live in the United States.”

‘People were undercounted’

Still, some are left wondering if the state is even more diverse than Thursday’s numbers suggest.

Utah’s Latino leaders have raised concerns that undocumented immigrants and refugees in the state might not feel comfortable filling out the census because of then-President Donald Trump’s attempt to include a citizenship question on the survey. While the administration ultimately abandoned its push to put the question on the census, these community leaders argued that even proposing it would lessen trust in the survey.

Moreover, Chavez-Houck said, many involved in the census — which initially rolled out online — worried that the results would be skewed by “a digital divide that disproportionately impacts people of color as well as rural communities.”

There was a concerted effort to reach some of these populations, she said, even amid a pandemic that made door-to-door canvassing a challenge. Despite that, she said, “I would say, anecdotally, more likely than not, yes, people were undercounted.”

Dustin Jansen, director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, spoke about the challenges in reaching rural homes in tribal areas, especially during COVID-19, and the wording of some questions. Native Americans saw their percentage of the state’s population dip from 1% in 2010 to 0.9% in the new survey.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Hillcreek Singers from Fort Duchesne, Utah, of the Northern Ute Tribe kick off the 15th Annual Governor’s Native American Summit with a drum circle, held on the Utah Valley University campus on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021.

For her part, Bateman said she is hopeful that the numbers are largely accurate, noting that they generally align with the Gardner Institute’s population estimates. However, she added, the Census Bureau’s follow-up efforts to gauge the accuracy of its count will be illuminating.

“I hope that people felt safe enough to respond,” she said, “because their responses matter and do make a big impact.”

Chavez-Houck said the pandemic points to the importance of accurate demographic data in serving ethnically and racially diverse communities, which have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

“We always need to know where people are, where they live, and who they are,” she said, “because it helps us improve upon the way that we communicate very important health issues like this.”