Utah has seen the largest one-year jump in population due to in-migration in the post-World War II era.
The latest estimates, released Thursday, show 61,242 more people living in the Beehive State at the year’s July 1 midpoint compared to the year before, pushing its total population above 3.4 million and forcing persistent questions as to how the state will manage rapid growth.
New residents coming here from elsewhere accounted for 38,141 — or 62% — of the total population gain, the 2022 projections reveal. They were lured in large part, experts said, by a bustling economy that opened relatively early compared with other states as the pandemic loosened its grip.
“That’s a huge achievement,” said Natalie Gochnour, director of the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute, which helps to develop the yearly data in support of the Utah Population Committee, with experts and demographers drawn from government, academia and the private sector.
“In a world where the pandemic is still unwinding and where we’re really going through a housing correction right now, for the state to realize its highest level of net in-migration in modern record-keeping,” Gochnour said, “it’s a big deal.”
Utah’s total population growth of 1.8% over last year also represented the most residents the state has added in one year since 2006, during the housing boom that led up to the Great Recession.
Experts caution, though, that these new estimates cover July 1, 2021, to July 1, 2022. With interest rate hikes and some signs of economic weakening in the second half of this year, the historic in-migration trend is likely to ease in 2023, according to Mallory Bateman, director of demographic research at the Gardner Institute.
“You’re going to see this as the lead-up,” Bateman said, “to a bit of a slowdown.”
But after more than three decades of swelling in-migration, Gochnour expects Utah will continue to attract out-of-staters.
“As the fastest growing state with a relatively strong economy, we might slow,” she said, “but I wouldn’t expect that to change dramatically.”
Growth reached just about every corner of Utah, but to different degrees
The new estimates, published yearly under state law, used sophisticated projection models based primarily on tax records, school enrollment and housing permits.
They also build on the picture from the 2020 census, which revealed Utah led the nation in population growth over the previous decade, at 18.4%.
All but one of the state’s 29 counties added residents in 2022, with only eastern Utah’s rural Daggett County seeing a net loss, of six residents.
And in-migration exceeded the natural increase from births and deaths everywhere in the state, save for Salt Lake County, where newcomers accounted for about a third of total growth.
Research in 2020 indicated California and Texas were the primary states people were leaving as they moved to Utah, Bateman said. It also showed about a quarter of the incoming residents had prior ties to the state.
And the pandemic clearly accelerated the trend, as many Americans living in larger cities moved to less populated areas. In-migration to Utah had climbed steadily since 2015 as a share of the state’s overall growth, but then surged by more than 10% from 2020 to 2021 and ticked up another 3% this year.
Utah’s own natural population increases, meanwhile, made up 38% of the new additions in 2022, dampened by a declining birthrate and a higher-than-usual number of deaths due to COVID-19.
“That is a really sobering data point,” said Laura Hanson, state planning coordinator, “recognizing that each one of those points is a human, a person and somebody’s individual loss.”
For a second year running, Iron County saw the fastest population surges statewide this year, at 4.3%. Rural counties such as Wasatch, Kane, Rich, Juab and Sanpete all swelled by more than 3%.
So did the state’s second-most-populous county, Utah County, which added the most people overall of any county, at 23,980 residents.
“It’s something we see and feel every day,” said Curtis Blair, president and CEO of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce, who described the county’s rapid housing construction as new employers continue to relocate there and existing ones expand.
“This conversation about growth is important,” Blair said, “because we believe that tying growth to prosperity is the key. I’d rather have the problems of growth than the problems of no growth.”
Can Utah spread its growth more evenly?
From some regions of the Beehive State, the share of in-migration was far higher than for the state as a whole, showing that many of these incoming residents landed in more sparsely populated counties.
That includes much of southern Utah, where new arrivals were 91% of total population growth. Counties such as Piute, Wayne, Carbon and Emery actually would have lost population, if not for those moving in.
Salt Lake County, in contrast, was the only county where less than half the growth came from in-migration, at 32%, and one of six counties that had shares of net migration lower than the state as a whole; the others being Davis, Cache, Grand, Summit and Weber counties.
Hanson, Utah’s planning coordinator, said the numbers made clear that growth is not being evenly distributed across the state, prompting what she called “a statewide conversation” about future growth strategies.
“As we’re thinking about how we grow, a challenge for our state is how to manage the areas where we’re bursting at the seams,” she said, “but also direct some growth to areas where we’d like to see more economic development.”
Carbon County, where jobs rely heavily on coal mining and power production, saw 78 fewer births than deaths in 2022 but also drew 328 new people from elsewhere. Price Mayor Mike Kourianos said that appeared to signal that the state’s recent efforts to entice growth off the Wasatch Front were bearing some fruit.
The mayor said Price had recently recruited a major employer, and others were growing as the city continued to explore ways to diversify its economy.
”It’s exciting to see how we’re going to change the direction,” Kourianos said, “but we have a long way to go.”