By now, likely everyone in Wyoming has heard anecdotes of people rushing from cities, heading for more rural areas, where it’s easy to social distance. And a statewide housing shortage seems to indicate that Wyoming is part of that trend.

But whether data proves a population increase is unclear.

Population in 14 of Wyoming’s 23 counties decreased from 2010 to 2020, according to 2020 Census redistricting data from the U.S. Census Bureau released in August. But that data reflects a pre-COVID-19 period, as collection ceased in the spring of 2020. Preliminary data showing population changes in Wyoming from July 2020 to July 2021 will be released in December, according to Wyoming State Chief Economist Wenlin Liu.

An early estimate of state and county population for July 2020 showed an increase in net migration — meaning more people moving into the state and less moving out — after six consecutive years of a negative trend, according to Liu.

“That is possibly due to COVID, and there are some people who did move to a more rural area with a smaller population with the ability to work at home,” Liu said. “That estimation, from July to July, may reflect some migration post-census, which ended in April or May of 2020.”

According to the Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, just before the pandemic, American migration hit a 73-year low.

“This (pre-COVID) migration decline occurred during an upswing in the economy, when young adult millennials were beginning to get back on their feet after the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009,” wrote William H. Frey, senior fellow with the Brookings Institute Metropolitan Policy Program.

But at the same time data collection for the 2020 Census ceased, the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect nearly every aspect of American life, including where people work and live. Those who did move in 2020-21 likely didn’t go far, though. According to 2020-21 data reported by Bloomberg, 84% of those who reported a move stayed within the same metro area, 7.5% stayed within the same state and only 0.28% of people who left urban areas reported leaving the metro area altogether. Overall, areas adjacent to urban centers saw more people moving in than moving out, compared to pre-pandemic levels.

“There is anecdotal evidence of people coming to Wyoming, and it is obvious that people are leaving San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle or New York, but mostly they move to nearby areas,” Liu said. “People move to places that are familiar, so someone from New York may move to Connecticut, or retire to Florida. A few of them probably came to Wyoming, but it is not as obvious.”

So how to explain the housing shortage in Wyoming? Gov. Mark Gordon noted the issue in August, citing shortages in Wyoming’s urban areas like Cheyenne, Sheridan and Teton County. Building permits increased about 40% in the first six months of 2021, Liu said, but that can likely be linked to an increase of homeownership — not necessarily new people coming to the state — because of a record low interest rate. Many renters, he said, have become homeowners. 

The homeownership rate in Wyoming is similar to the U.S. It increased in 2020 from 71.3% to 73.9%.

“The number one factor is, of course, low interest (rates),” Liu said. “The U.S. demographic shows that there is a higher number of millennials, grandkids of baby boomers, who are purchasing their first house in their late 20s or early 30s. There could be another factor influencing the housing boom, and maybe that is because of COVID, perhaps people want a bigger home.”

Those people may not be new to the state, either, he said.

“As far as exact numbers, post-COVID, we will know that in December,” he said.

That data will show migration from 2020-21 based on tax returns, and can offer a better estimation of Wyoming’s perceived population change during the pandemic.

“For example, if someone filed a tax return in Fort Collins (Colorado) and then in Cheyenne, you can assume they moved from Fort Collins to Cheyenne,” Liu said. “Otherwise, it is only anecdotal evidence, and for Wyoming, the change is not as obvious as some other states like Montana, Idaho and Utah.”

The population change in Wyoming based on 2020 Census data showed the seventh-slowest growth rate in the United States. The overall change indicated an increase of 13,225 people. Laramie and Teton counties led the state with the fastest growth rate (9.6%), followed by Lincoln (8.1%), Sheridan (6.2%) and Natrona (6.0%) counties. Sublette County experienced the steepest decrease (-14.8%). Washakie and Carbon shrunk by 9.9% and 8.5%, respectively. Laramie and Natrona, the largest counties, and the only Metropolitan Statistics Areas (MSAs) in the state, added the most residents, 8,774 and 4,505, respectively, from 2010 to 2020.

The main reason for the negative net migration over the last decade, and consequently the slow population growth pre-pandemic, was the downturn in the energy industry since mid-June of 2014, and particularly in 2015 and 2016, when the state lost 9,200, or one-third of its mineral extraction industry jobs. It can also be linked to lower birth rates and an overall aging population.

“Change in migration is mostly driven by changes in employment in Wyoming, while the fluctuation in labor force and employment always depends on the health of the state’s pivotal industry,” said Liu.

One way to track population changes is school enrollment, and according to the National Center for Education Statistics, before the coronavirus pandemic, national changes in school enrollment were projected to remain relatively small through 2029. Whether that will change due to a pandemic baby boom, or migration data, remains to be seen.

Ryan Thomas, superintendent of Uinta County School District 1, said his district has seen a very slight increase in its student population.

“(We are up) 10 students from the same time last year,” Thomas said, but overall, he added, “UCSD1 has experienced declining enrollments in seven of the last eight years. It would be great to see additional growth in our community and in our schools.”

In Converse County School District 1, Superintendent Paige Fenton Hughes said they are up about 50 students for a total of 1,700 total in Douglas. In Laramie, Albany County School District 1 was down seven students from 2020’s 10-day enrollment, Superintendent Jubal Yennie said this fall. School enrollment data may also closely reflect a change in fertility rates, which has an impact on population. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a dramatic increase in births following World War II was reflected in school enrollment data in the mid-20th century, but started declining again before the new millennium.

In Wyoming, Liu said the state is likely only 20 years ahead of a natural population increase, which reflects a number of live births larger than the number of deaths during the time period considered.

“COVID already has impacted that, but even not counting COVID, by about 2040, without international immigrants, natural population growth will probably be zero in Wyoming,” he said. “For the U.S., probably by 2045 that number will be zero.”

As baby boomers age, so does the overall population of Wyoming. The same trend is happening across the nation.

“The overall economy, or GDP increase, is directly related to population. From 2010 to 2020, we only had three states’ population decline. From 2020 to 2040, absolutely we will have more. Maybe 10 states will decline,” Liu said.

“What we are left with is international migrants, which depends on policy,” Liu said. “What that means is a future competition for labor. The overall labor force will slow, and if one state increases by 1%, some other state will have to decline. They will compete for the labor force.”

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