Fresno, Valley are still growing, but how many people are moving away?

Fresno County and its neighboring Valley counties each saw thousands of people leave to move somewhere else between 2010 and 2018. But those departures were outpaced by birthrates to drive an overall population increase in four out of the five counties.

Fresno County lost more than 21,000 people to what the U.S. Census Bureau calls “domestic migration,” or moving to some other place within the United States. That was more than all but five California counties, according to the latest Census estimates for states and counties released Thursday for 2018.

California as a whole experienced a net outward migration of more than 710,000 people to other states over the eight-year period; 39 of the 58 counties also saw losses from people moving elsewhere. Still, the state had an overall population increase of 2.3 million people, or 6.2 percent since the start of the decade. The Census Bureau estimates California’s population at more than 39.5 million as of July 1, 2018.

A spokeswoman for the Census Bureau said the agency doesn’t track why people move into or out of counties, nor does it have specific information on where they’re going to whence they came inside the U.S.

But primarily, “people move mainly for economic reasons, whether for better opportunities or to find a place to live where the cost of living isn’t so high,” said Lindsey Huang, an assistant professor of sociology at Fresno Pacific University. “It’s an interesting phenomenon; I’d really like to see where these people are going.”

Despite the outbound migration from the central San Joaquin Valley, only Kings County experienced an overall net decline of 1.1 percent, or 1,616 people, in total population since 2010. Fresno, Madera, Merced and Tulare counties all had net gains in total population during the same period. Among the factors contributing to population growth are higher birth rates than death rates, as well as international migration to or from other countries, the Census Bureau reports.

From 2010 to 2018, the number of people living in Fresno County grew by almost 64,000, to 994,400, according to the Census estimates. That’s 6.9 percent growth – faster than California’s 6.2 percent growth, and more than 40 other counties, but far slower than Placer County, which topped the state at 12.8 percent growth. Fresno County maintained its place as the state’s 10th most populous county.

Huang said there are several factors that may be contributing to the pace of domestic migration out of Valley counties. She pointed to the largely agriculture-based economy as an example. “Possibly families that have done work in the fields are now sending their kids to college, and once those students graduate, they’re not returning to the community to work, but seeking other opportunities,” Huang said.

“We know there’s a housing crisis in the Bay Area, and people are having to commute farther to find a place they can afford to live,” she added. “It’s a burden to commute so far every day to find housing.”

Huang, who moved from Texas to California several years ago, said she has observed that the Valley is a region “with strong family values,” presenting an interesting dynamic for people who leave the area. “When people move for economic reasons, they often leave some family behind, whether it’s parents or grandparents,” she said. “I wonder what this could mean for families if there is more mobility among children who are graduating from college and moving away … or if family forces are keeping people here despite maybe having fewer economic opportunities.”

Los Angeles County remains the most populous county in California with more than 10.1 million people, but it grew by only 2.9 percent, or fewer than 290,000 from its 2008 estimate.

Nationwide, the counties registering the largest percentage gains in population since 2010 were all rural areas; except for North Dakota, Utah and Iowa, all are in the South. Williams County, North Dakota, grew by 57.8 percent, the largest percentage in the nation, followed by counties in Texas, Utah, Florida, and Georgia, all with more than 34 percent population increases.

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Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.