Clark County population sees slight increase

1.2% growth between 2011, 2012 brings total to 438,287

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

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Clark was the sixth fastest growing county in Washington state last year, according to an estimate released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday.

The county's population grew 1.2 percent between 2011 and 2012 to reach 438,287.

Although Clark County's growth slightly exceeded that experienced by the state as a whole, it's a far cry from the suburban boom here in the 1990s.

Clark County added 5,172 residents in the year leading up to July 1, 2012. A little less than half of the county's growth came from births outpacing deaths, with the other half from people moving into the county. About a third of the newcomers arrived from other countries.

Migration has historically fueled Clark County's growth, but that changed during the Great Recession, said Scott Bailey, a state regional economist. The jobs market remains poor. And the county's reputation as a pleasant bedroom community hasn't overcome the aftershocks of the housing crash.

"If you're holding a mortgage and you're underwater, it's hard to move," Bailey said.

The economy also may have been a factor in slowing birth rates, he added.

Washington overall grew by 1.1 percent to 6.9 million people.

Whitman County, home to Pullman, grew the fastest in the state — 3.4 percent — to reach 46,606 residents. King County, the state's most populous, grew by the most people — 35,838 — to reach 2 million residents.

Fourteen of the state's 39 counties lost residents, including Cowlitz, Lewis, Wakhiakum and Pacific in Southwest Washington.

The Census Bureau's estimate for the county's population is slightly higher than the state Office of Financial Management estimate, which put Clark County's population at 431,250 as of April 1, 2012.

The federal government uses data from the census in decision-making. The state uses its own numbers.

Pinning down population is tricky. Tallying births and deaths is the easy part.

"It's people moving in and out that's tough to track," Bailey said. "With the squirrelly housing market, more people are doubling up. That makes it tougher to estimate population based on the number of households."