Alaska needs to do more to attract new residents

More people moved out of Alaska than moved in every year between 2015 and 2021. If not for a healthy birth rate, the state population would have shrunk even more than it did.

Wrangell has steadily lost population over the past 20 years, with the decline projected to continue.

These are not good statistics.

Even worse, these are self-fulfilling projections of future economic troubles. Fewer residents means fewer available workers, which means labor shortages for the goods and services people need. Business across the state already suffer from a lack of employees, forcing them to cut back their hours and services.

It’s a downward spiral that will take concerted effort — and probably public spending — to solve, or at least to prevent it from getting any worse.

Economists, chambers of commerce, community leaders, educators and survey results around the state point to multiple reasons for the outmigration and sliding population. They list good public schools, a strong university system, community services such as child care and “investing in ourselves” as what makes a town and a state attractive and helps build growing economies.

Sadly, Alaska is not a leader in economic health among states.

Between 2015 and 2021, the state’s poor performance in employment growth, unemployment, net migration and gross domestic product place Alaska’s economic health at the bottom of all 50 states, according to a recent report by the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development.

“You could make a case that Alaska is the bottom-performing state going back to 2015,” said Nolan Klouda, the center’s executive director and lead author of the report. In particular, Alaska had the highest rate of net outmigration (more people moving out than in) of any state, the report said.

Alaska has had the steepest decline in the number of young people moving in of all the states except West Virginia and Wyoming, Alaska Department of Labor economist Neal Fried said at a conference in Anchorage this month.

The university report concludes, “Alaska’s economy appears stuck in a rut relative to the rest of the U.S.”

To turn around the numbers and get out of the rut, Klouda said, Alaska needs to push ahead with diversification of its economy. That would be more year-round tourism, remote work, technology — something more than just hoping for high oil prices.

Putting more money into K-12 public schools and the university system could help attract people to the state, Klouda said.

“I think it’s a call for action to the community, that we can no longer say this is a cycle and the economy will get better next year,” Bill Popp, head of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., said in an Anchorage newspaper interview. The shortage of new residents can be addressed with smart investments to improve services, he said.

“A lot of (other) cities and states have reinvested in themselves, providing great schools, vibrant downtowns and community settings and walkable neighborhoods, things that younger generations are looking for,” Popp said. “There’s a lot of competition for the labor force nationally and it’s come full circle that we haven’t invested in ourselves.”

Speaking at the same industry conference as Fried, Tim Dillon, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, called for broader support of young workers. “Transportation, housing and child care need to be part of the conversation.”

They’re right. Alaska’s elected officials and community leaders need to pay attention to the statistics and talk more about education, housing and child care, and less about political battles. They should not shirk their responsibilities as the state shrinks.

The state needs real solutions, even if they cost money. It’s better than shrinking.


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