Migration & Population Trends in the West Vary by County Type

County migration and population trends in the West constantly change. We summarize counties into four types--high-wage services, farm-dependent, oil and natural gas boom, and retirement destinations--to show the relationship between population and economic structure.

  • The fastest-growing places saw populations increase by more than 50% from 2003-2012, while the fastest-shrinking places saw declines of at least 15%.
  • Counties specializing in high-wage services are among the fastest-growing, both from in-migration and natural change; while farm-dependent counties are among the fastest-shrinking, as younger residents move away and older residents age-in-place.
  • While retirement destinations have relatively high death rates, these places often have vibrant economies attractive to younger movers, leading to overall population gain.

UHaul trucks

County populations in the West are constantly changing, shifting due to demographic and economic forces, as well as the draw of family and natural amenities. These trends depend on natural change; whether births exceed deaths—as well as net migration; whether more people are moving in or out.

One county’s population boom while and another county’s decline largely depends on the sectors driving the local economy and the type of workforce these sectors demand. We summarize the counties according to four typologies–high-wage services, farm-dependent, oil and natural gas boom, and retirement destinations – and assemble economic and demographic data that characterize these four county types. Although the categories are not exhaustive nor mutually exclusive, we find they explain much of the variation in population change across the West.

Trends in population change have long-term implications for the economic and demographic trajectories of counties. This post includes an interactive map showing individual counties’ population change and score for the four typologies, a sortable, county-level data table, and a review of popular and peer-reviewed literature focused on explanations for trends in migration.