Due to a falling birth rate and a drastic dip in the number of new arrivals, Alaska’s population is the lowest it’s been since 2012.
New estimates from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development show fewer people moved to Alaska in 2019 than at any point since 1988, when the state was in an oil-bust recession.
“We’re just way below our average of in-migrants,” said state demographer David Howell.
The state’s birth rate has also fallen: Fewer babies were born in 2018-19 than in any survey period within the past 20 years.
As of July 1, 2019, the state had 731,007 residents, down 3,048 from the same date in 2018.
Each January, the Department of Labor estimates population changes between July 1 and June 30 each year.
The U.S. Census Bureau published slightly different figures in the last week of 2019, but the state demographer’s office has access to Permanent Fund dividend application data that allows estimates more accurate than interim figures from the Census Bureau.
Only the Census Bureau’s 10-year survey, which will begin Jan. 21 in Toksook Bay, is more accurate, Howell said.
According to the Census Bureau, Alaska’s population decline was the second-worst in the nation, behind only West Virginia, which lost 0.7% of its residents between 2018 and 2019.
Median age is record high
Population estimates are critical, Howell said, for planning what a community — or state — needs. If the number of young people rises, there might be a need for more schools. If the number of older people rises, more hospitals or handicapped-accessible ramps might be needed, he said.
The latest estimates show Alaska’s median age continues to rise: It’s now 35.5 years old, up from 33.8 in the 2010 census and the highest on record.
“That will impact a lot of things in the state and what kinds of services we need to provide for people. It’s just a totally different group than we’ve had in the past. We’ve always been such a young state,” Howell said.
Fewer births, most deaths on record
While Alaska’s population ages, fewer babies are being born here and fewer families with young children are moving here.
The 9,885 births recorded in the latest report are the fewest in the past two decades, and the number of deaths, at 4,625, is the most reported since 1945.
Howell said other states have previously seen a decline in their birth rates, and demographers forecast that Alaska would follow suit.
“We expected it to happen, but it’s been kind of slow to come and has kind of happened quickly the last three years,” he said.
The difference between births and deaths — what Howell and other demographers call “natural increase” — wasn’t enough to offset the amount of migration out of the state.
Factors driving migration
Department of Labor economist Neal Fried has long studied the reasons for that migration.
“I think one of the biggest impacts on the (population) right now is the national economy, not our economy,” he said.
Alaska’s unemployment rate is at or near record lows, depending upon the measurement, but unemployment rates in the Lower 48 are even lower.
“If you can find good economic opportunities closer to home, you’re going to stay closer to home,” Fried said.
Because migration is predominantly dictated by the Lower 48 economy, Alaska’s population loss is somewhat disconnected from the statewide recession that ended in 2019.
“We started losing population before our recession — significantly before our recession — so you can’t hook our population losses on that three-year recession,” Fried said.
He, like Howell, said the state’s changing population means changing demand for goods and services. Health care employment, he suggested, is rising because of the state’s aging population.
In part because of Alaska’s improving economic picture, the number of people leaving Alaska actually fell between 2018 and 2019, but the number of new arrivals dropped even faster, according to the new Department of Labor report.
Anchorage population drops, Mat-Su growth slows
The latest borough and city estimates published by the Department of Labor show the Municipality of Anchorage with 291,845 residents, fewer than in any year since the 2010 census. The municipality’s population peaked above 300,000 in the 2014 estimate.
The population of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough — the fastest-growing area of the state — has grown by 1,024 people to 106,438 in 2019, according to the latest report. Earlier in the decade, the borough’s population was growing by more than 2,000 people per year.
The population of the Fairbanks North Star Borough dipped below 96,000 for the first time this decade, but Howell said that decline is temporary, linked to the overseas deployment of soldiers from Fort Wainwright. In addition, an expected deployment of F-35 fighters and their support staff to Eielson Air Force Base has not yet taken place.
Southeast Alaska’s population is continuing a long-term decline and at 72,373 is the lowest since the 2010 census, state figures show. Juneau’s population has slumped below 32,000 for the first time since that census, though it officially remains the state’s second-largest city because of the narrow boundaries of the city of Fairbanks, which also posted a significant population loss.