1 of 3
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Lincoln Dent is held by his mother Penny Dent at the Intermountain Medical Center Women and Newborn Center in Murray, Utah, on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's population is growing faster than that of any other state, but unlike other rapidly growing states, Utah's growth is driven primarily by births rather than migration of people into the state, according to a new analysis. However, experts say even in Utah — famous for large families and lots of babies — growth is slowing down.

In a nationwide analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, 24/7 Wall St. found that Utah's population grew 2 percent between 2015 and 2016, while the national growth rate was a paltry 0.7 percent. The Beehive State had 1,854 births per 100,000 people in 2016 — nearly 600 more births per 100,000 compared to the national rate of 1,286 per 100,000.

Utah also had the lowest death rate, with close to 35,000 more births than deaths in 2016.

And to solidify its place as the fastest-growing state, Utah had more inbound migration than most states, its population getting a 0.8 percent boost from net migration, compared to 0.3 percent nationally. On that measure, Utah ranked ninth.

Still, Utah's 2.29 total fertility rate, while above the so-called replacement rate of 2.1, has seen significant declines recently. Whether Utah will continue to outpace the nation in terms of growth is anyone's guess, though experts find reasons to be hopeful, said Samuel Sturgeon, president of Demographic Intelligence, who was not involved in the report.

"Utah has done a good job of retaining its young people — and I don't think you can ignore the religious influence," said Sturgeon, referring to the state's dominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "It's not just parents having more kids. The kids are also staying in Utah."

Aaron Thorup, National Center for Health Statistics; Gapminder; Utah Department of Health; U.S. Census Bureau Decennial Counts; Utah Population Database, University of Utah
National Center for Health Statistics; Gapminder; Utah Department of Health; U.S. Census Bureau Decennial Counts; Utah Population Database, University of Utah

What he called a "Mormon effect" is not the only thing bolstering a young, vibrant population, he added. The strong economy has helped the state attract young families who like the healthy job market, which also helps keep a high percentage of the young people already here as they move into new-adult life stages, like launching families and careers.

"Historically, states with younger populations have more dynamic economies. If you can get young people coming in and retain the young people you already have, from a policy standpoint, that's were you want to be," said Sturgeon. "If you can get those in their 20s who are making family decisions to decide our state's a great place to settle, it's to your advantage because you are looking at (their) multiple years as taxpayers before they become elderly."

Many of those new Utahns, who came in for work or recreation or a host of other reasons, are also having babies, so the impact of in-migration and natural growth are more intertwined than just numbers can reflect, said Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

'Pregnant pause?'

Although Utah's still the fastest growing state, it's growing more slowly than in the past, said Perlich. And in 2016 it slipped to No. 2 in terms of total fertility rate, behind South Dakota.

Perlich said experts in her office aren't sure what factors pushed South Dakota ahead of Utah. "There are lots of reasons for waiting to form households until you're older. One hypothesis is that we're asking more and more of women. More women are on (LDS Church) missions, more are going for extended education. Those things are all good but they take time, so it is a competition for what women are able to do."

Affordable high-quality child care is expensive, and women work for a "whole lot of reasons," she added. "That becomes a factor. It's very, very hard to have a young family with a lot of children and be able to work."

Policy decisions have an impact, too, on what families decide about their future, said Perlich. Issues of employer flexibility, affordable housing, child care and other issues are related. Even student debt may play a role in decisions about when or if to form families.

Perlich was among experts who expected economic recovery to spark an increase in births, but the fiscal year ending July 1, 2017, instead showed the number of births had declined yet again, even in Utah, she said. "I thought we'd see some demand for child bearing and see the numbers going up. It didn't happen."

If the decline was simply what a Gardner Institute analysis earlier this year called a "pregnant pause," the good economy should have sparked an uptick in births. Instead, she added, it's looking like the lower rate might be a "new normal."

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Penny Dent holds her newborn son Lincoln while her husband Chris and daughter Zoey sit with her at the Intermountain Medical Center Women and Newborn Center in Murray, Utah, on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.

Still, Perlich predicts that as long as Utah is "the heart of the Mormon culture region — and for the forseeable future we will be — it will have a higher fertility rate than the rest of the nation in general." But there are many indications, she added, that Utah will "never return" to previous high fertility rates noted during the ’50s and through subsequent periods of robust economy.

Turning that around would require deliberate policies to support young working families. While baby boomers had children because "it was time," the generations since have preferred to have their financial house in order first. "That's a different mindset and deliberation than 'Bam! I'm 22. I better have my first baby,'" Perlich said.

Moving in and out

While Utah's growth was fueled by newborns, other fast-growing states Florida, Washington and Nevada all grew largely based on international in-migration, the report said.

Migration has regional patterns. The new report noted that "many Americans are currently moving from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West." Western states dominated the fast-growing states list, which besides Utah included Nevada, Idaho, Florida, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Arizona. West Virginia topped the "shrinking" list, which included Illinois, Vermont, Connecticut, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and New York.

The report noted that many baby boomers, as they age, are "choosing to leave the expensive housing and cold weather of New York for the low cost of living and tropical climate of Florida. More people moved from New York to Florida than any other state," a trend that in 2014 saw Florida surpassing New York as the third most populous state. California and Texas are No. 1 and No. 2.

An area's fertility rate matters for many reasons, not least of which is having enough young people who contribute taxes that help support programs for both old people and children.

But it means more than that, said Perlich. When people move into an area and they have children "those are people through their actions showing their belief in the bright future of a place."

19 comments on this story

She doesn't think Utah's birth rate will fall below replacement level any time soon, though it could happen if it becomes too hard to find affordable housing and child care or if employer policies make it hard for men and women to both work and embrace family life. Those are among pressures that encourage young people to put off having families or lead them to choose to have smaller families.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Penny Dent kisses her fourth child Lincoln on the forehead at the Intermountain Medical Center Women and Newborn Center in Murray, Utah, on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.

Perlich added that it's clear institutions and workplace policies built around 1950s-type families — where men worked and financially supported the family while women stayed home to care for children and the house — are not as applicable today.