Is Seattle shrinking or continuing to grow? Depends who you ask
If you’re one of those who say Seattle is dying, you’ll find data showing a shrinking population to back you up. But if you’re a Seattle booster who thinks the boom times aren’t over, you’ll find data showing continued growth.
How is it possible ?
Recent census data, which I discussed in my column, showed Seattle and King County had a slight population loss from 2020 to 2021, but data from the Washington Office of Financial Management (OFM), which I also wrote aboutshowed modest growth in both the county and Seattle.
The federal and state governments produce annual population data for cities and counties in Washington. Generally, these figures are in close agreement.
Lately, however, there has been a gap.
It occurred to me that by reporting this conflicting data, I may have confused some of my readers. So let’s see what could have happened.
One thing to always keep in mind with population estimates is that they are just that – estimates. These are not exact numbers. Only the decennial census, like the one in 2020, is supposed to be an accurate count, and even that isn’t perfect.
The Census Bureau and OFM also have differences in methodology. Their annual estimates are never exactly the same, though they are usually close (and note that the Census Bureau produces population estimates for July 1 each year, while OFMs are for April 1.)
Another important point is that the past two years have been anything but ordinary. Difficulties with record keeping during the pandemic could certainly help explain why the Census Bureau and OFM have seen our local population move in different directions, according to Mike Mohrman, OFM’s senior forecast analyst.
“As you know, many data collections have been disrupted by the pandemic, not only the 2020 census itself, but school data, driver data and other data collections have been disrupted,” said Mohrman said in an email. “This is a particularly difficult time for those of us working in this field.”
And even though the Census Bureau and OFM data showed population trending in opposite directions, the actual difference between their 2021 estimates isn’t really that big.
OFM showed Seattle’s population to be 742,000 and the Census Bureau count to be 734,000 – a difference of only about 8,000. The two agencies’ estimates for King County were about 35,000 different, which isn’t that huge considering the total population was nearly 2.3 million last year.
The two agencies have different timelines for releasing their demographic data. The Census Bureau has a bigger lag — their 2021 numbers only came out this spring — while the OFM just published its 2022 estimates Last week.
New data from the OFM shows that growth has accelerated as we emerge from the pandemic.
King County grew by approximately 30,000 from April 1, 2021 to April 1, 2022, and the population surpassed the 2.3 million mark. Most of the county’s growth has occurred in Seattle, which is similar to what we saw in the 2010s when Seattle grew at a much faster rate than the suburbs.
Seattle’s population reached 762,500 in 2022, up about 20,000 from the previous year. This is an increase of 2.7%, which is not that far from the impressive growth rates we saw during the boom era of the 2010s.
In comparison, King County (excluding Seattle) grew by only about 10,500 residents, an increase of 0.7%.
The main driver of growth in King County was migration, with about 22,000 more people moving in than moving out during the one-year period. OFM data also shows about 23,500 births and 15,000 deaths in King County, for what is called a “natural increase” of nearly 8,300.
Among King County cities with a population of at least 5,000, the strongest growth was in Black Diamond, up 15.5%. Black Diamond is home to a large new planned community called Ten Trails, which is being built in phases. This community, which opened in 2018, will eventually include approximately 6,000 homes, bringing more than 15,000 people to Black Diamond.
Only two towns in King County decreased (slightly) in population: Lake Forest Park and SeaTac.
The Census Bureau has yet to release its 2022 population estimate for cities and counties, and those numbers won’t be out until next year. We’ll have to wait to hear if they confirm that growth in Seattle and King County has rebounded.