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Should Oregon’s population decline concern us?

State economists sounded the alarm recently about a slight but sudden decline in Oregon’s population, warning of a potential drag on an economy that has benefited from steady in-migration for more than three decades.

For business leaders in Portland and budget watchers in Salem, this decline was another warning signal that Oregon should get its economic act together or prepare for tougher times ahead. But, for Oregonians generally, the idea of slower population growth is hardly a cause for concern. For many, in fact, it may represent a much-needed pause in a rate of growth they see as both unsettling and unsustainable.

We have long been of two minds about growth in Oregon, at least from the time that former Gov. Tom McCall urged outsiders to visit but not stay. We brag about the natural beauty of our state and our ability to attract the young and talented from across the U.S., but we worry that more people will crowd our open spaces and, the latest concern, exacerbate our housing crisis. We celebrate the arrival of new businesses but are quick to criticize the incentives that lure them here and the impacts of their operations in our communities.

This dissonance was evident in the findings of a recent statewide survey of more than 2,500 Oregonians conducted by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center in February. In that survey, the center found that almost half (49%) of respondents view population growth as “both good and bad,” while 20% see it as a “bad thing” compared to 16% who see it as a “good thing.”

When digging deeper into these attitudes, the center found that the negatives of population growth clearly outweigh the positives in the minds of most Oregonians. For a strong majority of respondents, population growth means:

“more traffic, congestion, and strains on public services” (89%);

“more stress on natural resources” (85%);

“more crowded outdoor destinations” (83%);

“more competition for jobs and housing that is affordable” (73%).

Oregonians recognize the economic benefits of population growth, but they don’t rate them as highly. By lesser margins, respondents agreed that population growth means

“more businesses, good jobs, prosperity and more choices” (68%);

“more “workers to contribute to Social Security and the tax base” (67%).

Yes, we want a sound economy, but we want even more to preserve the beauty and livability of our state.

The late Ed Whitelaw, an economist who founded ECONorthwest, saw these values as working in concert rather than in competition with each other. He viewed Oregon’s natural beauty and recreational opportunities as a “second paycheck,” delivering benefits to its people that could not be easily quantified in economic terms.

But after decades of outpacing the nation in both population and economic growth, Oregonians might now be more inclined to flip Whitelaw’s concept and put the preservation of our livability ahead of the promotion of growth. The first paycheck is our livability; the second simply enables the first.

But whether “livability first” is a strategy that can continue to deliver the paychecks that sustain families and buoy public budgets remains an unanswered question.

The connection between population growth and economic prosperity may not hold in the future, but it has proven its value in our recent past. Data from Oregon’s last decade show that our outsized population and economic growth produced tangible dividends for Oregon families, vaulting median family incomes here back above the national baseline for the first time since the 1970s.

On the other hand, slower-growing and rapidly aging populations are a national and, in developed countries, global phenomenon that is challenging policymakers to develop new economic strategies.

Respondents to the center’s survey were reacting to the experience of past decades and were generally not anticipating a natural slowing of population growth in the future. In the decades ahead, however, there will be greater incentives for states to transform their economies and boost productivity without the benefits of the demographic tailwinds provided by the post-World War II generations.

Meanwhile, fear of an imminent exodus from Oregon seems overblown. A Gallup survey from 2014 found that 33% of Americans expressed a desire to move to another state, compared to 24% in Oregon. The survey this year found that sentiment at 27% among Oregonians. Discontent with one’s home state seems endemic in America, but no more here than elsewhere.

McCall didn’t get his way. Those who came stayed. And the natural beauty of our state – Whitelaw’s second paycheck – is likely to keep most of us here, motivated to protect and shape what we value in both its livability and economy.

This is one of a series of commentaries that Tim Nesbitt regularly produces for the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center, based on the center’s monthly surveys of Oregonians. His observations and opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the center or the Oregon Capital Chronicle.


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