It’s not just growth. Idaho is also losing residents and changing fast.

University of Idaho professor hopes to create annual population reports

By: - August 22, 2022 4:15 am
Graphic is named Top 10 states for Idaho migration in 2021. It shows bubbles of varying sizes to represent people moving into Idaho and from Idaho to other states. California is the largest bubble for incoming to Idaho; Washington is the largest bubble for outgoing from Idaho.

Where did new Idahoans come from? (California, by a large margin.) Where did former Idahoans move to? (Many states, but mostly Washington.) This graphic, based on Idaho Transportation Department driver’s license data, shows bubbles of varying sizes that represent how many people moved between Idaho and that state in 2021. (Audrey Dutton, Idaho Capital Sun)

He kept hearing and reading the same claim: Californians were moving to Idaho. Some claimed the newcomers were changing the state and bringing cash to buy homes for astronomical prices.

But University of Idaho professor Jaap Vos wanted to know if it was true. So, he looked for the data. He settled on a mix of data from the Idaho Transportation Department and the U.S. Census Bureau — painting a picture of migration into and out of Idaho.

What he found was not just a rapidly and steadily growing population — and, yes, many newcomers from California — but a huge amount of demographic change in recent years.

Idaho is growing. Under that growth is perhaps a more interesting story, Vos says: The departure of thousands of Idahoans, replaced by residents from other states.

Vos found that, on an average day in 2021, 180 people moved into Idaho and 137 moved out of state.

Why does it matter where someone is ‘from’?

Vos is a professor of planning and natural resources at the university in Moscow. He specializes in research related to rural communities. Just like urban cities like Boise, small rural communities are affected by migration and demographic changes.

“The reason I started doing this was because we really didn’t know what was happening in rural communities,” he said. “We heard all of these stories, but what was really going on?”

''I can’t really give you a lot of answers, but what we can show you is: this population picture is a lot more complicated than people generally believe.''

– Jaap Vos, professor, University of Idaho

Vos hopes to turn this one-time research project into a regular thing — an annual or semiannual report on Idaho population change. Looking at demographic change, in addition to sheer growth, could help community planners, he said.

Any place will change when it loses longtime residents, and more than replaces them with transplants. In Idaho, that shift happened rapidly in the past decade, Vos said.

Such rapid change can affect Idaho’s commerce, politics, economy, housing and job market.

New Idahoans might have a different source of income, different professions and education levels, and different spending power, he said.

They might have moved here to live, but participate less in the local economy — if they work a remote job and prefer to shop on Amazon instead of at local stores, for example. They may not be loyal to Idaho’s small, family owned businesses — or, they could bring with them a strong “shop local” consumer philosophy. And, Vos noted with a laugh, they might not be a University of Idaho Vandal but instead root for Caltech. They might even have different driving habits.

“Somebody who comes here, do they go to the local store, or do they go to a (chain store) they know from where they came from?” he said.

Chart shows Idaho net migration over the years. The line is very jagged, with a peak in 2017.
Idaho’s population boomed in the past decade. But the state lost residents, too. This chart shows how much that matters: the peaks are in years when fewer Idahoans left the state; the valleys are when more Idahoans moved away. The number of people moving to the Gem State rose steadily each year. (Courtesy of Jaap Vos, University of Idaho)

Vos found that nearly half a million of Idaho’s 1.84 million residents are new to the state in the past decade.

He used a mix of census and Idaho Transportation Department data to get a rough idea of the movement into and out of Idaho, down to the county level. It’s not an exact science, he acknowledged.

He said the Boise area — mainly Ada County — attracted people from California’s major urban areas. Coeur d’Alene attracted people from northern California and Washington, and Pocatello and Idaho Falls attracted people from Utah.

But the most important finding was how many residents are leaving the state.

“We need to stop looking at just growth,” he said. “Why are people moving out? … What is causing that? Is it because housing wasn’t affordable? Is it because of the economy? It’s not clear.”

To find out more about Idaho’s changing demographics, University of Idaho professor Jaap Vos looked at vehicle registration and driver’s license data for 2011 through 2021 from the Idaho Transportation Department’s Division of Motor Vehicles.

DMV data looks at population change under a different microscope than does the more popular U.S. Census Bureau data.

The census is a sample, and the bureau uses each sample to calculate estimates for the entire population. For small rural areas, that makes it prone to errors. And it can take years for census data to be published.

The DMV data has its own limitations. It includes only people who:

  • are of driving age,
  • have a vehicle and/or license, and
  • surrender their out-of-state license and registration shortly after they relocate.

The benefit of the DMV data, though, is that it can show migratory patterns as they happen.

Vos will present his research Sept. 1 at the Idaho Smart Growth Summit in Boise.

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, data visualization and more.