Hawaii’s disappearing young people are driving much of the public policy debate these days.

In his annual State of the State address last month, Gov. David Ige focused on how the high cost of living is driving young adults out of the state. His invited guests in the gallery even included a young local couple who he pointed to as a rare example of success — they’d taken advantage of a government-subsidized rental apartment in Ewa Beach to save enough money for the down payment on a house here.

“Too many in our community simply gave up and moved away,” Ige said.

In a broad effort to stop the population drain out of the state, the Legislature in conjunction with Ige and supported by business leaders, is pushing a package of bills this session to make Hawaii more affordable.

But Hawaii’s situation is far from unique. In more than a dozen states, people are being forced to move from their childhood homes in search of better pay and housing as larger national social and demographic forces pull families apart, in ways that are both good and bad.

The difficulties for Hawaii residents are real. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2018, only 53% of the people living in Hawaii were born here, a percentage that has been steadily falling for decades.

But now people born in Oregon, Wyoming, Maryland, Idaho, Washington, Colorado and Montana are similarly on the move, propelled by better opportunities elsewhere or pushed out by spiraling housing costs brought on by well-heeled outsiders, according to the same census data.

In Oregon, for example, only 45.4% of people born there live there now and in Wyoming only 42% are local-born.

Demographer Charles Rynerson, interim director of Portland State University’s Population Research Center, says he is one of the rare people he knows in that city who actually grew up there. He said that many state residents have moved either north to Washington or south to California in search of better job opportunities.

“People are shocked when they meet me and learn I’m from Portland,” he said.

Washington state offers lower housing prices and taxes. Of his 1979 graduating class from Ulysses S. Grant High School, for example, he estimated about 10% now live on the other side of the Columbia River in Washington.

The pace of migration of local people is definitely increasing, he said. In his own family, for example, in his parents’ generation, only one of five siblings moved away. But in his generation, two of the four moved away, with one brother going to Seattle and the other to Denver.

One big difference between Oregon and Hawaii, however, he said, is that most people in Oregon don’t think it’s that big of a deal that Oregonians are moving away.

“For more and more Americans, our zip codes are our destiny.” — Richard Florida, demographer and author

“Oregonians don’t have the same perspective on people living here as (people in Hawaii) do,” he said. “If everybody stayed, we’d really have a problem with crowding.”

He said the biggest population pressures come from California, which he said “is exporting people all over the West,” who are looking for cheaper housing costs, particularly in retirement, but who arrive with big nest eggs.

“People are sad to see the lifestyle changing because of so many outsiders moving in,” he said.

Jobs And Housing Drive Population Shifts

Destination cities that are job meccas are particularly attractive especially when housing prices have skyrocketed. Home prices in Portland, Seattle and Denver, for example, have more than doubled in the past 20 years, outstripping national trends, according to the Federal Reserve.

The median home price in Portland was $416,000 in the third quarter of 2019, according to the National Association of Realtors, and it rose to $520,500 in Seattle and $458,000 in Denver.

Percent of Hawaii population born in the state. Click for full size. 

Social worker Wendy Hubbard Silverthorne, 63, has seen this unfold in her lifetime. Raised in Kailua, she moved to Colorado for college and then returned to Hawaii, where she lived in her parents’ ohana unit with her husband and two children. They relocated to Portland in search of better job opportunities for her husband and then moved to Vancouver, Washington, because the schools were better.

“I love Hawaii,” she said. “I grew up there. It was sad I didn’t feel I could afford to stay. I found another place, Vancouver, that was likable and comfortable and I’m glad I bought when I did. It would be very hard to turn around and buy another house now.”

Silverthorne said the same housing problems she saw in Hawaii — high rents pushing out lower-income tenants and increasing homelessness — have now arrived in Vancouver as well.

What is Fault Lines?
“Fault Lines” is a special project that throughout the coming year will explore discord in Hawaii and what we as a community can do to bridge some of the social and political gaps that are developing. Read more here.

“I don’t know why it’s happening,” she said. “I’m shocked at how expensive everything is.”

In Wyoming, meanwhile, people are moving away because jobs in natural resource extraction — coal, oil, petroleum and natural gas — are disappearing as society shifts away from fossil fuels.

“For us, it’s the economy,” said Wenlin Liu, chief economist of Wyoming’s Economic Analysis Division.

Coal production in Wyoming fell 40% in the past 10 years, Liu said, adding that jobs are lost every time commodity prices decline.

Liu said that his understanding is that Hawaii also suffers from an over-reliance on a single industry — tourism.

“Like Hawaii, our economy is not diversified,” he said.

In addition, he said, while many young people love the outdoor recreational activities available in Wyoming, like hiking and fishing, others are drawn to the excitement of city life, something Wyoming doesn’t have. Wyoming’s largest city is Cheyenne, he said, and has a population of only about 60,000, which causes many people to choose to move to Denver.

States like Nevada, Arizona, Florida and the District of Columbia, meanwhile, have always been known as transient and many people don’t expect to stay.

Some people believe that geographic mobility is more a sign of economic strength than weakness. Demographer Richard Florida, author of “Who’s Your City,” a book about patterns of population movement, says that people who move are those who have the means and resources to move and that they profit by doing so, while those who remain are what he calls “stuck.”

“For more and more Americans, our zip codes are our destiny, with our ability to achieve economic mobility, pursue our careers and afford homes dependent on where we live,” he wrote in a recent issue of CityLab.

Those who don’t move will likely suffer economically, he wrote.

Florida counts the people who remain in Rust Belt Cities among the “stuck,” but notes that some choose not to move because of what he calls being “rooted.”

According to census statistics, the states with the highest percentage of residents who were born there and stay there are Mississippi, Ohio, Alabama, Pennsylvania and Michigan. It’s also easier to afford to stay there: The median housing price is $223,000 in Birmingham, Alabama, and $141,700 in Charleston, West Virginia.

“The majority of people want to stay where they are from,” Rynerson said. “The specialness of Hawaii would make that even stronger, especially if your ancestors predate colonialism.”

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