As Lower 48 economy improves, many leave Alaska

Alaska’s population grew slightly last year, but that doesn’t mean more people are moving to the state.

Overall, the total population of Alaska increased by 271 residents between July 2014 and July 2015, according to the most recent population estimates from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The growth stems from natural increase — the number of deaths subtracted from the number of births statewide.

However, in terms of people relocating, more people left Alaska than moved in during that time period — about 6,774 more. This is the second year in a row that Alaska has seen a relatively large loss in net migration, said Eddie Hunsinger, a state demographer for the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Some fluctuation is normal, but Alaska does have a higher migration rate than other states, he said.

“Alaska has one of the highest rates of migration in the country,” Hunsinger said. “Six percent of Alaskans arrived in the last year, and five to seven percent will leave in the next year.”

Some of the reasons may be demographic — Alaska tends to have a younger, working population, and many are in the military, which requires relocation, Hunsinger said. However, other reasons may be economic.

It wouldn’t be the drop in oil prices that caused the departures in 2015, though, said state economist Neal Fried. The population prediction next year may show that, but this year, it’s more likely because economic opportunities elsewhere in the U.S. are improving, he said.

“There’s just an incredible recovery in the American economy,” Fried said. “Our numbers (were) quite positive in the Great Recession, but as the economy improved and the rest of the country became more attractive, there was greater demand elsewhere and people left.”

Fried said this is a regular trend for Alaska. When the economy elsewhere in the U.S. is less robust, people tend to relocate here, seeking jobs. When job opportunities improve elsewhere, the trend reverses.

This is true of other cities and states as well, he said. When a region is prospering, the population tends to increase as people immigrate there, seeking economic opportunities that may not be available where they come from. Likewise, regions that are not doing as well tend to lose population or at least not gain very much, he said.

“I think one of the biggest reasons people move is for economic opportunity. That’s one of the reasons for emigration,” Fried said. “Economic prosperity doesn’t explain all migration, but it plays a role.”

Within Alaska, the Mat-Su Borough continued its decades-long trend of population growth with an increase of 1,801 residents. The Kenai Peninsula came in second, with an increase of 348 residents.

The Municipality of Anchorage lost about 1,458 residents, the largest amount of any region in Alaska. The Aleutians East Borough’s population fell by 222, the second largest drop statewide. Most of the losses in regions can be chalked up to migration, according to a news release from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Among the state’s six economic regions, the Anchorage-Mat-Su Region, the Northern Region — which includes the North Slope Borough, the Northwest Arctic Borough and the Nome Census Area — and the Gulf Coast Region posted growth. The other three regions, which include the Interior Region, the Southeast Region and the Southwest Region, posted relatively small losses.

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