Last year’s population estimates were historic in Thurston County, for at least one reason: for the first time since records have been kept, the number of annual births were outpaced by deaths. The county still saw a population increase because of in-migration. But, even those numbers were relatively flat, keeping with a recent trend of steady (if historically median) in-migration. Since the historic in-migration in Thurston County in the 1970s, the number of people moving here has bounced between 2,000 and 5,000 people each year, despite the increase overall in population.

The data below is based on last year’s population data release from the state.

In regard to how we got to a negative natural population increase, it looks like a combination of a flat birth rate since the recession and a rapid increase in deaths in the last few years. I’m not an epidemiologist, but it seems likely that the natural decrease is probably a combination of the impacts of generational population change (baby boomers getting older), obviously Covid and a flat birth rate.

One thing I’ll definitely want to do with the chart above is change it from raw population data to growth by year as a percentage to give a clearer trend from the 1970’s massive growth to today.

But now let’s look at the historic battle between birth and death:

Underlying data on births v. deaths in Thurston County

Source: Populations estimates (OFM)

While the gap in deaths vs. births was tightening in recent years, mostly because of the flat birth rate, the pandemic spiked deaths in Thurston County, driving the total number of deaths above births.

But, well we zoom out, we see that Thurston County is not alone in losing the battle with death.

Thurston County’s situation seems to be part of a statewide trend across all counties starting a decade or so back. Here are all natural change totals as a percentage of population, colored for increase (blue) or decrease (red):

Underlying data on county level natural population change.

Source: Components of population change (OFM)

Generally speaking, Washington counties had healthy natural population increases until the mid to late 1980s, and then they began sliding downward.

There seems to be a fascinating correlation in this particular data that deserves more exploration. The leading counties in this trend seem to follow a particular model. The counties that led the trend in this decline fall into two general groups: Pacific, Wahkiakum, Clallam, and Jefferson (declining Olympic Peninsula timber counties) and Garfield and Columbia (tiny upper Snake farming communities).