Alaska population declines for first time since late 1980s

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For the first time in nearly 30 years, Alaska’s population has declined by 2,629 people.

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Alaska’s population decreased from 739,709 in 2016 to 737,080 in 2017.

According to estimates released by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the 0.36 percent decline was the first drop since 1988, the year during which the state’s last big recession ended.

These numbers are not that surprising, Eddie Hunsinger, state demographer and economist in the department, said. Typically, about 40,000 – 50,000 people leave Alaska each year.

“Even though this year we had a net migration loss … the numbers were still in order with the overall levels that we expect,” Hunsinger said. “About 40,000 people moved to the state and close to 50,000 people moved from the state. It’s just that they were pretty far from one another this year.”

The net migration loss was 8,885 people. In other words, 39,260 people came to Alaska while 48,145 left. This, coupled with a slight decrease in births, contributed to the overall population decline.

Hunsinger said that the state’s economy is a likely factor in people’s migration out of the state.

“We knew the last few years that we were probably going to see net migration losses due to the growth in Alaskan economy compared to the economy down south. We expected to have unemployment losses, we expected to have some population losses,” Hunsinger said.

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Ralph Townsend is the director of UAA’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, and he also says that Alaska’s unemployment rate may drive Alaskans to the Lower 48.

“Given that the unemployment rate in Alaska is 7.2 percent and the unemployment rate for the [whole U.S.] is 4.1 percent, it’s not surprising that people might be leaving to take advantage of the stronger job market down south,” Townsend said.

The estimates also show that there has been a gradual decrease in births and an increase in deaths.

“That trend is not surprising because Alaska is getting older,” Townsend said. “Its population structure is changing … If the population gets beyond the age at which they’re having children, then there will be fewer births.”

Hunsinger says that there have been changes below the surface that are geographic and demographic. These include an uptick in the baby boomer population.

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“We’ve had so much increase for that senior population for Alaska and that’s really due to people who moved here back in the 1970s and ’80s when they were young,” Hunsinger said. “Going forward for the next 10 to 15 years, they’re hitting age 65 and that’s why that growth is happening.”

While the state’s overall population has grown over the years, many of those that move to the last frontier still have connections and family elsewhere.

“It’s not surprising that when economic opportunity increases in the Lower 48, there will be people who, for one reason or another, the right decision is for them to move,” Townsend said.

Compared to other areas of Alaska, the Mat-Su Borough population has grown by about 1,600 people. Townsend says that it’s possibly because it is cheaper to live there than it would be to live in Anchorage or another part of the state.

Some Alaskans are unsurprised by the statistics. On a Facebook post by Anchorage Daily News, a number of people have commented about the state’s economy, crime, accidents and the permanent fund dividend having an effect on citizens.

“Alaska’s recession is all [too] real,” Hugh Pelkey wrote.

Others say that population changes are common.

“I have lived here for 47 years,” Robert Grove wrote. “People leave the state for all kinds of reasons … The economy and population will always fluctuate.”

Alaska’s total population on June 30, 2017 was 737,080.