Angst over youth outmigration emerges in Alaska campaign rhetoric and debates

Steller Secondary School seniors gather in the sunshine outside their school on Oct. 27. From left are Pauline Mallari, Samantha Antonio and Zane Barber, all bound for college. They all enjoy the Alaska outdoors lifestyle, but they all expressed lack of confidence in Alaska as a place for young people to build careers. Demographic data shows that young adults are leaving Alaska, contributing to nine straight years of net outmigration. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

For nine straight years, more people have left Alaska than moved to the state, and for eight of those years, Alaska’s total population declined. It is the longest stretch of net outmigration recorded in Alaska since World War II.

This election season, those demographic trends have been invoked in campaign rhetoric and some finger-pointing.

Challengers to Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, for example, have cited the population losses in their criticism of the incumbent’s cuts to the university and other services.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Les Gara frequently points out that the state has seen about 20,000 more people leave Alaska than move here over Dunleavy’s term in office. “One-third of our young people are leaving. You have to ask yourselves why,” Gara said at an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce candidate forum on Oct. 17. “We’re losing students, we’re losing young people for the exact policies that this governor has tried to push. They don’t see a future in this state.”

Former Gov. Bill Walker, an independent seeking a return to his old job, frequently cites the pending closures of six Anchorage elementary schools as evidence that Dunleavy has “actively sought to make Alaska a less desirable place to live for families and workers,” as he put it in a recent opinion article published in the Anchorage Daily News.

“We’re reopening prisons and we’re closing schools. What have we become as a state?” Walker said in an interview on a political podcast released on Tuesday.

Dunleavy campaign spokesman Andrew Jensen pointed out that outmigration started several years ago and was an ongoing trend during all four years of Walker’s term and during times when Gara was serving in the state Legislature.

Still, outmigration is an issue among candidates on the political right, some of whom cited it as a reason to build up legacy Alaska industries.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Pierce, at an Oct. 17 forum in Anchorage, bemoaned the exodus of young adults, which now has included all five of his sons. “The first thing I think of is you’ve got to have some opportunities for these young adults to come here and want to stay,” he said. “When I graduated from high school you could find a job and there were a lot of opportunities in the late ’70s.”

“We’re seeing our traditional Alaskans move out of the state, and we’re trying to prop up new industries that Alaskans don’t support,” Scott Clayton, a Republican state Senate candidate, said at an Oct. 18 forum held by the Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce.

Statistics from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development confirm the declines.

They show that Alaska’s population has slipped from 742,876 in 2016 to 734,823 in 2021, a result of combined factors that include lower birth rates as well as outmigration.  The declines have placed Alaska among a varied group of population-losing states.

What draws particular attention is Alaska’s loss of residents aged 20 to 65, considered to be the working-age group. That population segment peaked in Alaska in 2013 at about 479,000 and fell to about 452,000 by 2021, a 5% decline, compared to a national rate of 2% growth during the period, said Eric Sandberg, a demographer with the department’s research section. Only West Virginia and Wyoming, with 8% and 6% declines, have seen higher percentage losses in the working-age population segment, he said. “Alaska’s working-age population has shrunk far more than most other states,” Sandberg said.

Democratic candidate Les Gara, second from left, speaks at an Oct. 11 gubernatorial candidate forum held by the Resource Development Council for Alaska. Other candidate are, from left, former Gov. Bill Walker, an independent; Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the Republican incumbent; and Republican Charlie Pierce. Candidates this election season, partiularly Gara and Walker, have spent a lot of time at public events talking about outmigration of young Alaskans. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Behind those numbers looms a question: Do young people see a future for themselves in Alaska?

For some Anchorage high-school students, it’s a tough call.

Zane Barber, Samantha Antonio and Pauline Mallari, seniors at Steller Secondary School, say they love Alaska’s natural setting and opportunities for outdoor pursuits like skiing, hiking, camping and fishing.

But the picture for career advancement and even social engagement is dimmer, they said in a joint interview at their school.

“There’s just better employment opportunities elsewhere. There’s more to do,” Barber said. In Alaska, “What are people going to do? Oil? Fishing?”

The three raised concerns about some troubling Alaska trends, like climate change and the crashes of some salmon runs. “The low rates of fish coming in nowadays, it’s really sad,” Antonio said.

They said they’d like to see more renewable energy development and a departure from reliance on seasonal or temporary work that is appealing to non-residents. Samantha cited the recent experience with a surge of nurses brought to Alaska in response to the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. They had an Alaska adventure, she said, “and then they leave. They never come back.”

They were skeptical about claims that boosted Alaska oil production will reverse outmigration trends. “I don’t think people who are leaving are people who work in the oil industry,” Mallari said. Oil, Barber said, is “not sustainable.”

Even though all three are working on applications to attend college outside of Alaska, they said they are deeply troubled by cuts to the University of Alaska system.

“UAA cutting funding and closing down departments, it’s just closing opportunities for people our age,” Mallari said, referring to the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Such cuts could exacerbate a pattern already seen among Alaska’s college students, they said. “They leave their family to go to college and they potentially never come back,” Barber said.

Across town, at Kincaid Park, teenaged skiers echoed concerns about education cuts.

“No one wants to stay in a school district where we’re underfunded and understaffed. Even as students, we see it every day,” said Maddy Reckmeyer, a 16-year-old Service High School student and skier who was finishing a training session with her teammates in the Alaska Winter Stars program. She cited teachers who have left not just the school but Alaska entirely.

Despite their love of the Alaska outdoors — “There’s no place like it; it’s hard to leave it,” Reckmeyer said — she and her teammates are planning to attend college outside of Alaska, and they don’t see much evidence of young people wanting to move to Alaska. She knows of only one person from the Lower 48 who wants to come to Alaska to attend college, she said.

On this argument, students have gotten support from some of their elders.

Inadequate education funding is part of a pattern that makes Alaska a less desirable place to raise a family, according to Ralph Townsend, a retired UAA economics professor and former head of the university’s Institute of Social and Economic Research. He has been calling for aggressive investment in both education and child care, among other actions, but said Alaska has done the opposite. “What Alaska has done is disinvest in higher education over the last six or seven years,” he said in a February webinar hosted by ISER.

Alaska Winter Stars skiers Olivia Soderstrom, Maddy Reckmeyer and Meredith Schwartz pose on Oct. 27 after practice at Anchorage’s Kincaid Park. All Service High School students, they said they love Alaska’s outdoor amenities but worry about the state’s educational prospects. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

While education funding, especially university funding, has been a big focus of the Walker and Gara campaigns, it has also been the subject of some counterattacks from Dunleavy’s campaign, which has defended the governor’s record.

Dunleavy in 2019 used his line-item veto powers to briefly impose a 41% cut in state funding to the university system. That funding reduction was later softened and softened and spread over multiple years.

Dunleavy spokesman Andrew Jensen defended the governor’s record, pointing out that outmigration occurred during Walker’s administration and during Gara’s tenure in the Legislature. He said that Walker, as governor, made deep cuts to education funding, totaling $150 million across public education and the university.

As governor, Walker himself called attention to education funding cuts, as he emphasized the state’s budget problems and argued for a long-term plan. When he signed the 2016 budget in 2015, Walker listed reductions in the state’s education department as one of a series of steps needed to help address a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

Political debates invoking downward population trends are not new in Alaska.

“We’ve seen children leaving our state because of job opportunities,” Frank Murkowski, then a U.S. senator running for governor, said in an Oct. 22, 2002, debate against then-Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer. Murkowski, in his campaign, cited losses of young Alaskans as evidence of a state in decline.

Then, the reduction in Alaska’s young-adult population segment was part of a national demographic pattern. Alaska population figures from 2000 and 2001 showed that the 18 to 24 age group – children born after the end of the Baby Boom – became smaller in the 1990s. The Alaska trend was also influenced by military downsizing in the state. The 25-to-35-year-old “young householders” group in Alaska also shrank at the time, mirroring a national trend, as Baby Boomers aged out of it, according to state data at the time.

Baby Boomer aging continues to affect Alaska’s demographics.

Alaska’s over-65 population is expected to increase by 30% from now until 2050, with most of that coming before 2040, according to the latest long-range population forecast issued by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s research section. Very little growth, if any, is projected for other age groups.

Overall, the newest long-term forecast, one of a series produced over the years, paints a picture of stagnancy.

“These are, by far, the lowest projections that we’ve put out,” said David Howell, Alaska’s state demographer.

The mid-range scenario is for only a tiny increase in total population, only about 3.4% from now until 2050. Every year from now until 2050, under this scenario, is forecast to have net outmigration. For working-age adults, the expected trend is flat. For Alaskans under 20 years of age, the expected trend is negative, reflecting a decline in Alaska’s once-high birth rate that accelerated after 2015, Howell said.

The median age of Alaska residents will rise from 36.1 to 39.5, the forecast predicts.

Beyond numbers, the Steller students identified another drawback of life for young people in Alaska. Social vibrancy, they said, leaves a lot to be desired.

“There’s not really a nightlife, actually,” Mallari said. “Unless you want a quiet nightlife,” Antonio added.

In myriad ways, the Lower 48 outshines Alaska, the students said.

“You step out of the state, you notice how small it is,” Antonio said. “It’s really outdated compared to other states and other towns.”

Alaska Beacon

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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