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Tired of growth? Be careful what you wish for

Seattle sees lots of moving days like this one (2005). Credit: Shelly Munkberg/Flickr

The cover of Newsweek on May 20, 1996 read: “Swimming to Seattle: Everybody Else is Moving There. Should You?”

If you got beyond the preposterous cover image of journalist Michael Kinsley wearing a sou’wester hat, the article did point to the powerful impact from a golden age that Seattle found itself enjoying during the 1990s. People were moving to the region in large numbers, approaching the blistering pace of the mid-1960s (a time of a big Boeing ramp-up).

The 1990s brought aggressive efforts to deal with — or, in the minds of many, to discourage — growth, including the state Growth Management Act and Seattle’s Citizens Alternative Plan limiting downtown growth. But the measures often seemed futile.

In many ways, the 1990s were not all that unusual. The Seattle region has always attracted newcomers, even when times are tough. A brutal, double-dip recession in the early 1980s had failed to halt people moving here. Even the Boeing Bust at the start of the 1970s provoked less outflow of people from the Puget Sound region than might have been expected, given the magnitude of that economic calamity. (The famous billboard asking the last person leaving to turn out the lights vastly overstated the rush to get out of town.) And during the recent Great Recession, when migration around the country slowed dramatically, people still came to the shores of Puget Sound.

Those experiences hold a big lesson for the region: We are likely to keep seeing growth for the foreseeable future, assuming we don't make major mistakes.

Population growth has two components. "Natural” growth is measured as births minus deaths. The second component, “net migration,” is measured as people moving in minus those moving away (in-migrants minus out-migrants). Over the past 50 years, about 55 percent of growth in the Puget Sound region has resulted from this phenomenon, net in-migration. During that time, the nation grew at an annual rate of just about 1 percent (the natural rate plus foreign immigration), while the Puget Sound region grew by about 1.6 percent per year. Since Washington’s natural growth rate is about average, the only way to grow faster than the country as a whole is to have more people moving in than moving out.

It is important, though, to focus not just on the net rate of in-migration, but also on the total flow of people in and out of the region. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey five-year average for 2007-2011 (a time period when migration around the country slowed considerably), the Puget Sound region experienced an average annual net inflow from other states of about 10,000 people. But that net figure masks the larger total flow: each year about 100,000 people moved into the region from other states while about 90,000 people moved out of the region to other states. Furthermore, each year an average of about 25,000 people move to the three-county central Sound region (King, Pierce and Snohomish counties) from other parts of Washington and 35,000 people arrive from foreign countries.

In other words, approximately 5 percent of the population — about 1-in-every-20 people — is newly arrived each year. 

Not surprisingly, the migration picture varies around the region. Of those moving into King County, only about 30 percent come from somewhere else in Washington, while 55 percent of those moving into Snohomish County come from elsewhere in the state. (Migration data for Pierce County are heavily skewed by its large military population.)

A rough pattern has become clear over the past decade: People move to King County from other states and abroad, having been recruited by employers, and residents of King County move to adjacent counties in search of affordable homes. During the housing boom of the past decade, that pattern expanded, with residents priced out of Pierce and Snohomish counties moving up and down Interstate 5 to Thurston and Skagit counties. 

The largest group of migrants, nearly 20 percent, comes from California, which sends 10,000 to 15,000 people to King County each year, and 3,000 to 5,000 each to Pierce and Snohomish counties. Not surprisingly, Oregon sends the second largest contingent of migrants, with Texas, Florida, Arizona, Colorado, New York, Michigan, Illinois and North Carolina filling out the top ten. Migrants from all 50 states come to the region each year, and in surprisingly large numbers from some of the smaller, more distant states. According to the Washington State Department of Licensing, at least one person from each of the other 49 states has traded in a driver’s license in each of the three central Sound counties every year since 1999. We can blame the Californians for what we may see as our trials with growth, but we shouldn't ignore the nine people who moved to the region from Vermont this past May.

Migration explains one of the paradoxes of the Puget Sound region. Educational attainment is very high in the region, yet the state’s higher education system is among the smallest in the country on a per capita basis. It turns out that migrants are more likely than current residents to hold college degrees; so heavy in-migration pulls up the overall level of education. According to the American Community Survey, 47 percent of all adults in King County have a bachelors degree or higher, while 57 percent of recent migrants from other states and 63 percent of foreign immigrants have a college degree. 

Looking to the future, and trying to assess the degree to which we will continue to grow through in-migration, the first question is, why do people come here? It certainly is not for the weather: A study of the relationship between weather and migration patterns found that the weather of Western Washington ranks very low in its ability to attract people. Most often, people migrate to take a job they have already landed. Employers in the region recruit nationally and internationally — bringing in people with advanced degrees, in many instances. While some talented people do just show up and hope to find work, most new arrivals jump right into new jobs. 

The next question is, why do they stay? Given the churn of migration, many people clearly leave, but many also stay. Migrants tend to be young professionals, and this group switches jobs with some regularity, so it would be easy enough to find that next job in California, Texas, New York or some other place with a thirst for talent. Nevertheless, the answer to why many of them stay is, at least anecdotally, that the lifestyle of Seattle and the Northwest takes hold of these newcomers and won’t let go, even when times get tough. It's not a new phenomenon. Gerald Nelson, writing about Seattle just after the Boeing Bust, suggested: “Many of those who cling to Seattle, middle class, fired and broke, do so not out of masochism, but because they love it. They want the mountains, the lakes, the Sound. They want the peace that the last remnants of the land can offer even the penniless.”

Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter has described the two elements necessary for developing a large regional talent pool: magnets and glue. The Puget Sound region seems to have both, with employers that can lure top talent from around the world and a lifestyle that sticks them in place.

Those who would like to see a slower pace of growth face an unpleasant choice, since the glue that keeps newcomers here is composed of exactly the ingredients that make this such a wonderful place for longtime residents. Unless we actively work to make the region stagnant, boring and ugly, we are likely to see growth through in-migration well into the future.

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