Utah births plummet but the state’s population continues to grow

Utah County leads growth; experts point to lower housing costs, younger population.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) New home construction in Saratoga Springs on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Despite the lowest number of births in two decades, Utah's population has continued to grow. Utah County has grown fastest, adding thousands more residents than much more populous Salt Lake County.

Utah’s population swelled by an estimated 52,820 people — equivalent to adding a city the size of Herriman — during the fiscal year that ended July 1, 2020, as a yearslong economic boom ended and the pandemic and its recession began.

The hotbed of growth in the state was Utah County, where the population mushroomed by 19,437. That was 61% more than the 11,899 people added by Salt Lake County, the most populous in the state.

And Utah had its lowest number of births in 21 years — allowing immigrants to add to the population almost equally with new babies. A decade ago, new births (minus deaths) provided three-quarters of the growth in a state known historically for its big families.

Those findings were released Thursday by the Utah Population Committee, formed by the Legislature to develop local estimates to serve as a check on U.S. Census Bureau data that often determines government funding. The committee uses such things as birth and death records, school enrollment, building permits and church records for its estimates.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Late this month, the Census Bureau is expected to begin releasing data from its once-every-decade count of where people lived as of April 1, 2020, and the state committee said it will then revise its own estimates based on the census count.

“Utah closed out the decade with another year of strong population growth,” the state panel’s report said. “Net migration is contributing the majority of growth in the fastest growing counties in the state, such as Utah, Washington, Tooele and Iron counties, a notable shift for Utah County, in particular.”

Historically, “natural increase” — or the number of births minus deaths — has driven most of the population growth in Utah, accounting for 77% of it statewide in 2011. That dropped to just 52% the past year.

“We had 46,500 births this year, which is the lowest we’ve had since 1999,” said Emily Harris, a demographer at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. “That’s significant because in 1999, the population was 1 million less.”

Harris said births have declined in Utah and the nation since 2008, when financial stress amid the Great Recession led many couples to have fewer children.

“Births have continued to decline,” Harris said. “Teen births have gone down in Utah. It’s hard to argue that is a bad thing. On top of that, people are waiting longer in their life to have their first child, which we know will also decrease the number of children they could potentially have in their lifetime.”

She said it’s too early to tell if the current recession will decrease births more, although recessions usually do.

Still, the report noted that Utah maintains one of the highest fertility rates in the nation. The Beehive State’s total fertility rate — the total number of children that women in the state would expect to have in their lifetimes — has dropped to No. 4 nationally at 2.026, behind South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska.

The report said only three counties — Kane, Piute and Wasatch — have seen a cumulative increase in births since 2011. And 25 of the 29 counties have experienced increases in deaths since then as the population ages.

“We also anticipate a higher number of deaths in 2021 due to COVID-19,” the report said, “leading to a sharper decline in natural increase if births do not increase.”

Meanwhile, immigrants provided 48% of Utah’s growth statewide last year, the largest portion this decade.

Utah County’s estimated growth of 19,437 was its largest of the decade, and a slight majority of that — 10,531 — came from immigration.

Utah County had the “highest net migration in the state. And that’s pretty significant,” Harris said, “considering it’s not the most populated county in the state.”

One reason for that is, “Right now, Utah County is providing a lot more affordable housing. There’s also a lot of development going on in northern Utah County,” Harris said. “I think people really jumped at the chance to live in these new homes, places that are a little less expensive.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) New home construction in Saratoga Springs on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.

Also, “This is the first time that we can find in recorded Utah history that Utah County has had higher natural increase than Salt Lake County. And that’s really interesting because Salt Lake County obviously has way more people.”

Among the reasons for its big natural increase is Utah County’s lower median age, Harris said. “When you have a lot more younger people, you have less people dying and you also potentially have more people that are having kids.”

But Utah County was only the third-fastest growing county by percentage for the year, at 2.98%. Faster growth was seen in Washington County at 4.06% (adding 7,328 people — 91% coming from immigration from other counties and states) and tiny Daggett County, which grew by 3.11% (adding 31 people) despite its distressed economy.

Only two counties lost population last year: Grand (down 18 people) and Emery (down three people).

The new report estimates that Utah gained 509,000 people since the 2010 census — about 2.5 times the population of Salt Lake City. It estimates the state population now at 3.273 million.

The largest counties in the state, according to its latest estimates, are: Salt Lake, 1,164,859; Utah, 670,844; Davis, 359,925; Weber, 255,468; Washington, 187,878; Cache, 133,741; and Tooele, 72,692.

The smallest county is Daggett at 1,024 people.