PORTLAND — Oregon added fewer than 32,000 residents last year, the slowest growth in a decade — since the last recession, in fact.

That’s not a coincidence. Migration typically slows, in Oregon and elsewhere, during broad economic dips. The same was true during the Great Recession, notes Oregon Employment Department economist Sarah Cunningham, and during the steep downturns that Oregon endured in the early 1980s.

Last year, though, there was another key factor: Deaths outnumbered births for the first time in Oregon history.

The same was true in 25 other states, according to Charles Rynerson with Portland State University’s Population Research Center. In Oregon, preliminary numbers indicate 315 more people died than were born during 2020.

Oregon’s “natural population increase” has been slowing for years, reflecting an aging population and lower birth rates. Rynerson notes that Oregon births peaked at 50,000 babies in 2007, compared to about 40,000 last year.

Economists had long anticipated that Oregon deaths would outnumber births, but that milestone hit years earlier than forecast.

COVID-19 was one big reason why. Even though the pandemic accounted for just about 4% of the 40,000 Oregon deaths during 2020, it was a substantial share of the 7% increase in total deaths.

Last year was actually the third consecutive year Oregon recorded slower population growth, reversing a steep upward trajectory that began in 2012. In an analysis last month, employment department economist Damon Runberg said a slowing job market and rising home prices are the most likely explanations for the pre-pandemic slowdown.

“Although Oregon’s housing market remains more affordable than neighbors to our north or south,” Runberg wrote, “many of the region’s largest metropolitan areas are losing the ‘low cost’ competitive advantage.”

Population growth was vital to the remarkable economic lift Oregon enjoyed in the decade after the Great Recession. Smart, young migrants buoyed the state by bringing new skills, and by attracting employers in search of their abilities.

So while migration clogs the highways and further amps up competition for Oregon houses, it’s also essential for the state’s rebound after the pandemic recession. Despite the higher prices, Runberg said Oregon remains an attraction — if only because other West Coast hotspots are even more crowded.

“Once the health crisis gets under control and consumer confidence rebounds, our migration patterns will likely bounce back to normal levels,” he wrote. “Oregon will remain attractive from a quality-of-life perspective, and there is every reason to believe that Oregon’s economy will recover as quickly as the national economy.”

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