Blessed in the West

Montana’s steady growth has consistently outpaced most other states

Instead of looking back at 2016, a year loved and loathed with equal passion, it’s an apt time to look at what most of us can agree upon moving forward. We all have something a lot of people want. It’s this place. The West.

The U.S. Census Bureau last week released its latest trove of data on national population changes. Overall, the country grew at a tepid pace, increasing by just 0.7 percent between July 1, 2015, and July 1, 2016, the lowest since the Great Depression, according to the Brookings Institution.

The slowing growth rate is attributed to a lower birth rate, higher death rate and small decrease in immigration. The U.S. population now stands at 323.1 million, but how Americans are spreading out is telling.

Continuing long-term trends, most of the states attracting people are out here. In fact, eight of the 10 fastest growing states in the nation are in the Mountain West or Pacific Coast region, including Colorado, Washington and Oregon.

The fastest-growing state in the U.S. is Utah, which crossed the 3 million mark and at once eclipsed Mississippi, Arkansas and Kansas in total population.

While many of those moving west land in population centers such as Salt Lake City and Denver, more rural states are also seeing an uptick. Idaho was the third-fastest growing state in the country and Montana fell just outside the top 10. With a growth rate of about 1 percent, our state added 10,447 residents over the last year. With a birthrate of 12 per thousand women, our population naturally increased, but the vast majority of the bump can be attributed to the 7,500 residents who migrated here.

Montana’s steady growth has consistently outpaced most other states since the last official census was published in 2010. Since then, the bureau estimates the state has added more the 50,000 people, a healthy number given our total number of residents is roughly 1,042,500.

Our population only surpassed 1 million in late 2011, and not everyone was happy about it. There were rumblings of Montana losing some its identity as a rural and rugged outpost. That hasn’t happened — this is a vast place — and there is no going back now.

For all the states that saw a palpable increase in residents, eight states actually lost people, including Illinois, West Virginia and New York. Overall, about 593,000 immigrated from the Northeast and Midwest to the West and South over the last year.

And while the West may covet its elbowroom, the alternative to growth is an indicator of a struggling economy. After Illinois tallied its third straight year of a shrinking population, William Frey with the Brookings Institution told the Chicago Tribune the trend was a “cause for alarm.” And it’s a trend unlikely to reverse itself. In 2014, Gallup surveyed residents of each state, asking if they would move if they could. Illinois topped the list, with 50 percent of respondents there expressing a desire to relocate.

Conversely, in the same poll, Montana was home to the fewest residents who would leave if they could at just 23 percent — tied with Hawaii. A lot of people want to head west, and many of them don’t want to leave once they get here. We’re blessed by this place we call home. In 2017 I hope to remind myself of that a little more often.

Happy New Year.

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