Alaska’s population rose slightly in 2022, but more people continue to leave than arrive

A line graph showing Alaska's population over the last 20 years, which hit its high in 2016.
This line chart shows Alaska’s population, as estimated by the Alaska Department of Labor, from 2002 to 2022. (Graphic by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska’s population rose in 2022 according to new estimates released Thursday by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, marking a second consecutive year of increases after four years of declines.

State demographers also retroactively boosted the state’s 2021 population estimate after new data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicated fewer people moved out of the state than previously thought.

“It was almost the bigger story that we retained more people for 2021 than we thought,” said state demographer David Howell, “than the small change to 2022.”

The new Alaska population estimate, 736,556, is the highest since 2018, but the state continues to have more people moving out than moving in, and 2022 marked the 10th consecutive year of negative net migration, Howell said.

The state gained population despite that migration because the number of births was greater than the number of deaths and the out-migration.

Nolan Klouda, director of the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, said the “glass half-full” argument is that the outmigration rate is dropping.

“And so we could say that’s a good thing. But it’s still a far cry from being in neutral territory or net positive migration,” he said.

Population figures are a gauge of the state’s economy and are critical for measuring future demand for services like hospitals, ferries, roads and schools.

Because state officials have access to Permanent Fund dividend data and federal officials do not, the state’s annual estimates are generally seen as more accurate than annual figures released by the Census.

“It’s a pretty important indicator of economic health,” Klouda said. “People do tend to vote with their feet and move to a place that sees more economic opportunity, has more job growth and more opportunity in general.”

Population change can also be a political issue. During the 2022 race for governor, opponents of Gov. Mike Dunleavy blamed the governor’s policies for the continued outmigration, though that decline began before Dunleavy took office.

In Anchorage, arguments over school closures have included discussions of the state’s declining school-age population, something that may also feature in legislative discussions of the state’s student-funding formula.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant effect on state demographics, according to the new demographic report, which is published annually in January and estimates population as of July 1 the preceding year.

“During the pandemic, just less and less people moved,” Howell said.

“And then you can see in 2021 to 2022, we have this big jump in both in-migrants and out-migrants for Alaska,” he said.

The report shows last year had the most in-migrants since 2012-2013 and the most out-migrants since 2016-2017. Subtracting the departures from the arrivals results in a loss of 2,489 residents.

Despite that loss, the state gained population because there were 9,364 births and 6,424 deaths, a natural increase of 2,940 — more than the number of people who left.

Subtract the migration figure from the natural increase, and you get 451, the state’s estimated population increase between 2021 and 2022.

Twenty-four states didn’t have a natural decrease; they had more deaths than births. Alaska is trending in that direction, too.

The state’s fertility rate — the number of births per woman of reproductive age — is above the national average but has been declining for years.

Conversely, the state’s death rate has been climbing as the state’s average age rises. In the new report, the number of deaths is the most on record, jumping by almost 1,000 from the previous year, which also was the record.

Deaths from COVID-19 account for some of that rise, but not all of it. This month, the Department of Labor’s monthly trends report shows elderly Alaskans — those at least 71 years old — now make up more than 7% of the state’s population, an all-time high.

Children — those under 15 — are now just 22% of the population, down from 29% in the early 1990s.

The rate of natural increase is the smallest it’s been since the 1950s, Howell said.

Most cities and boroughs recorded small population declines between 2021 and 2022, the state estimated. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Kenai Peninsula Borough were notable exceptions.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough is down by more than 1,000 residents. Howell said that decline is partly due to the fact that Fort Wainwright was preparing to deploy soldiers in the summer of 2021, which caused the base’s population to artificially swell while the state was counting.

Beyond that, Fairbanks — like other cities across Alaska — has been losing population because of people moving out of the state.

Anchorage, which remains the state’s largest city, dropped below 290,000 residents, in part because of that outmigration and because of residents moving to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which has a lower cost of living and more available housing.

Some rural Alaska communities have had stable populations because a high birth rate counteracts long-term outmigration. But with declining birth rates, that effect is fading. The Nome Census Area, North Slope Borough and Northwest Arctic Borough all posted lower populations.

“In Nome, their births are way down. … Nome and Northwest Arctic Borough have both seen pretty (big) declines in their birth rates in recent years,” Howell said.

Skagway appeared to be hit particularly hard by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. That tourist-dependent port relies on cruise ship visits, but those were nonexistent in 2020 and limited in 2021.

“Since 2020, they’re down about seven and a half percent,” Howell said.

Neighboring Haines hasn’t seen much of a population decline, but the Census Bureau likely undercounted the city’s residents in 2020. The Census count showed just over 2,000 residents; the state estimates there are more than 2,500 people living in Haines.

City officials have plans to challenge the Census estimate, which is used to determine federal funding, and Howell said the Department of Labor is assisting in that challenge as needed.

This story originally appeared in the Alaska Beacon and is republished here with permission.

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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