Forget Salt Lake, this county gave Utah 40% of its growth

During the first year of the pandemic, more than 56,000 people moved to Utah, according to new census data.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Even a pandemic was not enough to shake Utah from its trajectory as one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, new estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show.

From July 1, 2020, to the same date in 2021, Utah’s total population grew by an estimated 56,291, which placed it seventh in total population growth during that time and second in percentage population change.

The only state that grew faster, proportionally, was Idaho.

The substantial growth continues a decadelong upward trend in the Beehive State. From 2010 to 2020, Utah ranked first nationally in percentage increase in population, at 18.4% over that time; Idaho was second at 17.3%.

Elevated rates of net in-migration, along with high levels of in-state growth, is “something that sets Utah, the state, apart from a lot of other places in the United States,” said Emily Harris, senior demographer at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Overall, the U.S. saw a population increase of 392,665 for the year, bringing the total to 331,893,745 in 2021, according to the data released Thursday.

Utah County

In the Beehive State, nearly 40% of its population growth from mid-2020 to 2021 can be attributed to one county.

Experiencing a huge swell in population, Utah County ranked 10th in county numeric growth across the U.S., seeing an increase of 21,843. In comparison, Salt Lake County saw an increase of just 185 during that same period.

Harris said, to her, it was the “most surprising data point” from this year’s estimates.

“I’ve been in this position for seven years, and I’ve never seen a Utah County in the ranking for numeric growth,” she said. “Usually, we’re in the top 10 for county percentage growth. But Utah, you know, is a lot smaller than half of the states. And so that, to me, was really, really shocking.”

She said that Utah County’s precipitous rise in the rankings can be attributed primarily to two factors. The first is a high net in-migration, meaning that large numbers of people are moving into the county from other places.

The second has to do with its existing population.

“A lot of counties this year, across the nation, experienced natural decrease, or a really, really large decline in natural increase, because of the excess in natural deaths,” she said. “But Utah County didn’t see that. So, Utah County had a slight increase in their natural increase. They still had a larger-than-normal number of deaths, but they actually had an increase in births.”

At least part of the reason for Utah County’s natural increase is a younger-than-average population, along with a culture where people place a high priority on families, Harris said.

In some ways, Utah County can be looked at as a microcosm for the state as a whole.

While more than 73% of U.S. counties experienced a natural decrease in population in 2021 — meaning they saw more deaths than births — virtually all of Utah’s counties experienced a bump in population during the pandemic year, with only Carbon, Grand and San Juan counties seeing decline.

“Utah, even though a lot of their counties have much more net migration than natural increase right now, we still have a healthy amount of natural increase in that homegrown growth,” Harris said.

For the year, Utah saw a natural increase of 22,992 and a net in-migration of 33,380, according to the data.

As opposed to its southern counterpart, Salt Lake County was one of the slower-growing areas in the state, but Harris said that fits with larger national trends.

“Nationally, what the Census Bureau is seeing is that there’s a shift in population from the larger, more populous counties to medium and smaller ones. And I think that’s what we’re starting to see in Utah, with Salt Lake County, and Weber and Davis becoming more moderated,” Harris said. “... But places like Tooele and Morgan and Wasatch are really just experiencing a lot of growth, same thing with Iron and Washington [counties].”

Utah was also well represented in the U.S.’ fastest-growing metro areas, percentage-wise. St. George ranked first nationally and saw growth of 5.1% during the year; Provo-Orem ranked eighth and saw growth of 3.3%; Logan was tenth and saw 2.9% growth.

When asked if she expected Utah’s high level of growth to continue year-over-year, Harris said, “I don’t see any reason why Utah wouldn’t be in the top five for population growth for the next few years. ... For Utah, we’re in a high-growth state right now, high-growth mode. We have a lot of jobs, job availability, and that brings a lot of people to our state.”