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Alaska’s recession derails almost a decade of population stability in Juneau

The state of Alaska revealed earlier this month that the ongoing Alaska recession has wiped out almost a decade of population gain in the City and Borough of Juneau and ended almost a decade of population stability. According to the state figures, the city’s population dropped by 454 people between 2016 and 2017. That follows another drop between 2015 and 2016.

The CBJ today has fewer people than it did in 2011: 32,269 year-round residents.

A closer analysis, performed by the Empire, shows that figure is nuanced. Some portions of the city are losing population at slower rates than others, and one area of the city even gained population from one year to the next.

In the CBJ, the eastern part of the Mendenhall Valley gained 73 residents between 2016 and 2017. That bucks the trend not only for the city, but for the state as a whole. Alaska posted its first population loss in 29 years as thousands more people moved out of the state than moved in.

The figures come from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which releases statewide population estimates each January. Those estimates are based on the number of Permanent Fund Dividend applications, military figures, and various surveys, among other sources.

While not exact — they’re frequently revised to one degree or another — they’re the best estimate available, beating even the federal census bureau for accuracy.

Within city and borough boundaries, the Department of Labor splits locations into different areas using lines drawn by the census bureau. Those areas are called census tracts, and the CBJ has six: Auke Bay, West Mendenhall Valley, East Mendenhall Valley, Lemon Creek, Downtown Juneau, and Douglas Island.

The eastern part of the Mendenhall Valley was the only tract to see a gain: All others dropped, some significantly.

Downtown Juneau is the smallest census tract in the city, but it posted the biggest drop of any tract. From a 2016 population of 3,538, it lost 124 people.

Douglas Island lost 114 people, Lemon Creek lost 70, the west side of the Mendenhall Valley lost 113, and Auke Bay lost 106.

Juneau’s population had been stable and rising slightly for almost a decade before oil prices plunged in late 2014 and triggered the ongoing recession. As the state shed jobs, it started shedding population. On the charts of Juneau population, the lines started going down.

The capital city relies heavily on government-related jobs, and deep budget cuts have slashed hundreds of positions from state payrolls. The City and Borough of Juneau had 2,953 state employees in 2017, according to state figures. That’s down from 3,382 in 2014.

The recession has spread into other sectors of the state economy as well, and state demographer Eddie Hunsinger has previously said that Alaska has a high “churn” rate of people leaving and entering the state. People who lose their jobs in Alaska are more likely to leave the state than to stay in the state while unemployed.

According to data from the Department of Labor, if you take the number of new arrivals between 2016 and 2017, then subtract the number of people leaving, you’ll find a loss of 624. That loss was partially offset by new births: Take the number of births and subtract the number of deaths, and you’ll see a gain of 170.

The Department of Labor doesn’t publish migration statistics or birth/death information for census tracts, just at a borough-wide or city-wide level.

Juneau’s population decline isn’t evenly distributed; one area of the City and Borough has even seen its population go up since the start of the statewide recession. (James Brooks | Juneau Empire)

Juneau’s population decline isn’t evenly distributed; one area of the City and Borough has even seen its population go up since the start of the statewide recession. (James Brooks | Juneau Empire)

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