Net Migration Continues to Drive Population Growth in Walla Walla

By Dr. Kelley Cullen

Along with the natural increase in population due to births and deaths, net migration is a driving factor of population growth within a community. Simply put, net migration refers to the difference between the number of people moving into an area and the number of people moving out. Because tracking actual migration is difficult, residual net migration is found by calculating the difference between total population change and the natural change.

Understanding population growth that is due to net migration is important for county officials because new residents moving into the area could bring different demand for goods and services than would occur from population growth due to simple natural increase (changes in births and deaths.) Net migration numbers can give community leaders a better tool in predicting and meeting the community's needs.

Walla Walla Trends 0.2.1 Residual Net Migration presents data on the components of population change for both the county and the state (offered as a benchmark) as far back as the 1980s from the Washington State Office of Financial Management (OFM).

From 2021 to 2022, the county saw a net influx of over 600 new residents – the highest since a similar amount between 2013 and 2014. This accounted for just one percent of the total population last year. Some of this increase could be explained as a slight rebound following the atypical loss of over 300 residents during the pandemic year from 2020 to 2021.

If not for the net in-migration, the county’s population might have seen a second year of decrease. The rate of increase in net migration of one percent exceeds the rate of total population growth for the county (0.85%) over the year from 2021 to 2022, indicating a natural decrease of around 0.15% occurred.

Taking a longer glance back, in the past 30 years, we see that Walla Walla has experienced only five years where there was negative net. While positive, over the previous six years, the rate of net migration had been much more moderate than the state.  Washington State experienced just over one percent residual net migration as a share of total population, yet the county’s rate was just about half that. Last year, from 2021 to 2022 was an exception as the county’s rate matched the state average of one percent.

The US Census Bureau offers a breakdown of the geography of in-flows and out-flows of residents in their Census Flows Mapper tool, covered in an accompanying short feature. During the five-year period from 2015-19, the majority of all new residents moving to Walla Walla came from either neighboring counties such as Benton, Franklin & Whitman County or from the larger counties of Snohomish, King & Spokane County. There was some notable in-migration from Umatilla County in northeast Oregon as well.

According to data presented in Walla Walla Trends 0.1.3 Population by Age Groups, it is likely that people might be choosing to retire in Walla Walla. In the past five years, the county has seen an increase of more than 2,000 residents aged 65 or older. While older adults bring with them assets and retirement income, they also bring greater demand for some services such as healthcare or transportation. It will become important for the county to be able to meet the differing needs of this demographic in particular.

A challenge for a county that is graying is the maintenance of a robust labor force. New residents 65+ migrating to the area are less likely to seek full-time employment. It will become important to retain or even recruit new workers.

Turning once again to recent migration patterns, we see some evidence that younger workers might be tempted away from Walla Walla in favor of larger counties that offer more employment opportunities. According to the Census data, all out-migration during the same period (2015-19) was most likely to be to the counties of Benton & Franklin (Tri-Cities), Spokane or Umatilla in Oregon. Interestingly, over the same five-year period, there was out-migration to Whatcom County in northwest Washington (on the Canadian border) of between 200 and 700 people cumulative over five years.

In terms of net migration, the destination of the most county residents moving out was either Benton County or Whatcom County. Counties that were more likely to send residents to Walla Walla rather than receive former Walla Walla residents were King County and the Portland, Oregon area. This out-migration to larger metropolitan areas might be in search of education (leaving for college) or employment.

If recent trends in net migration continue, Walla Walla will continue to attract more new residents. But it will become increasingly important to maintain a robust labor force to support the consumption patterns of the type of population growth.