Who’s moving into Utah? It’s hard to say now, thanks to the pandemic

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FILE – Rows of homes, are shown in suburban Salt Lake City, on April 13, 2019. Utah is one of two Western states known for rugged landscapes and wide-open spaces that are bucking the trend of sluggish U.S. population growth. The boom there and in Idaho are accompanied by healthy economic expansion, but also concern about strain on infrastructure and soaring housing prices. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – In June, demographer Emily Harris published a sweeping report of the migration that Utah has experienced recently.

With many comprehensive breakdowns of who is coming into and out of the state as part of her work at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, it could simply be said that the folks that making a new home in the Beehive State are younger, more educated, and more racially diverse than non-moving Utahns.

Harris’ report states that in-migrants make up 4% of Utah’s population, or 133,000 inhabitants, with former residents of California making up the lion’s share of transplants, something that has become both a popular gripe and a punchline among natives (locally-based real estate company, Homie, has a joke about selling your home to Californian on a billboard leading into Salt Lake City from Davis County).

As robust as Harris’ 16-page report is, it was derived from data spanning 2014-2018. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has likely radically shifted the way migration has flowed and will flow throughout the nation.

“It just feels like COVID kind of created what we call like a series break where Utah was on this trajectory of really high growth due to a lot more migrants coming into the state and fewer births,” Harris explains to ABC4.com. “And then COVID happened and everything we thought we knew about demographic patterns, and the movement of people kind of just changed in an instant.”

Thanks to several factors, such as the emergence of remote work and a related phenomenon of “Zoom towns,” or places around the nation that have experienced a “boomtown” effect of remote workers seeking recreational areas to enjoy a better sense of freedom, the true impact of the pandemic on migration isn’t known yet. Harris guesses if the pandemic ended tomorrow, it would be about two years before sufficient data is collected.

At first, pre-pandemic employment and education opportunities were driving Utah’s high migration figures. Of course, at the pandemic’s onset, mass furloughs, layoffs, and remote learning for college students brought many of the intriguing pieces of the Utah migration puzzle to a grinding halt. While students are back on campus and many employers are desperate to hire workers, whether Utah’s influx of newcomers has picked up has yet to be seen.

What is also currently unknown is whether the California-to-Utah pipeline is still as open as it was in 2018 when the Golden State sent 18,000 residents eastward into our neck of the woods. As many as that number may seem, and as much as it has been a common topic of discussion to assume Utah is the preferred spot for departing Californians, many other states have seen folks from Hollywood and the Bay Area move in. In fact, three years ago, Utah wasn’t even in the top 10 of states receiving Californians. Arizona, Texas, Nevada, and Washington all had twice as many Californian migrants as Utah.

Even if Utahns aren’t leading the way in becoming a refuge for Californians, grumbling about them overrunning the state is still an easy conversation to have, especially for those lamenting the current housing crunch.

“Utah is not getting a huge amount of Californians compared to other states but it’s still an impact on a small place like Utah, especially if there are a fair amount of Californians moving into one or two counties here,” Harris says, referring to Salt Lake and Utah counties. “Our world is kind of changing a little bit, housing prices are going up and it’s nice to have someone else to blame for part of that.”

Harris moved into the state in 2015 after working in the sociology department at Purdue University in Indiana. While not a native of Utah, she has seen and heard many Utah-lifers complain about a number of changes brought about by in-migration. The traffic is worse and the residents’ values are changing are among the chief complaints she hears. Her response, however, is that change can be a positive thing. It’s a sign that many of Utah’s efforts are going according to plan.

“What my colleagues and I try to put out there is that changes in our culture and diversity bring a lot of really great things to an area,” Harris states. “The state has tried really hard to bring in more tourists and companies who are going to bring people from outside of the state. A key result of kind of these efforts is then you’re going to have more people moving in who aren’t exactly like the people who lived here before. I argue that’s a good thing. More diversity, more points of view. It just makes for a richer experience.”

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