Data about migration to and from Clark County provides some insight for the future of the region — and also a warning.
Looking at U.S. census information, Columbian reporter Sarah Wolf writes that 5,043 people moved from Multnomah County to Clark County from 2016 to 2020. To provide some context, 2,753 people moved from this side of the Columbia River to Oregon’s most populous county, while 2,424 moved to Cowlitz County and 2,189 moved to King County.
So, net migration between Clark County and Multnomah County was about 2,300 in our favor. (Or to our detriment, depending on your perspective.)
While that doesn’t seem like a lot, considering that Clark County now has more than 500,000 residents, it is the analysis behind the numbers that proves interesting.
To start with, growth is beneficial for a region. It spurs economic activity and can generate new amenities that improve the quality of life for residents. Projects such as The Waterfront Vancouver pop up in vibrant cities and, in turn, create additional dynamic development.
Positive net migration is more of a commentary on a region’s desirability than a driver of it. People want to move here because it is a good place to live, with plenty of city parks, a strong local economy, access to outdoor recreation, close proximity to a major city, mountains and beaches close enough for a day trip, and other amenities.
Meanwhile, experts point out that Washington does not have a state income tax, while Oregon has one of the highest state income taxes in the nation. That fact enhances Clark County’s desirability for people who wish to remain in the metro area. Of course, Washington has a sales tax while Oregon has none, which creates a different set of issues — much to the chagrin of retailers on this side of the river.
As Andrew Hoan of the Portland Business Alliance told The Columbian: “What is the Portland economy? It’s this big area, and it happens to also be — while a single economy — it is one that is bifurcated by one of the largest differences in tax policy anywhere.”
Taxes, however, are only one part of the equation — and their impact likely is being overstated. If somebody lives in Clark County but works in Portland, they still pay Oregon income tax, meaning there are other factors at play, including good jobs in Clark County.
Traditionally, the most common reason people move is to upgrade their house or apartment, a desire that is enhanced by cheaper housing prices in Vancouver than in Portland. The second most common reason is a new job, followed by a desire to establish their own household.
Demographers have debated how the COVID-19 pandemic will alter those factors, but studies show that more than half of American adults live within 10 miles of where they grew up.
All of that offers some insight into why Clark County is attracting people from Portland. But there also is a warning involved.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many Oregon expatriates have been driven out by blight in the region’s largest city. Rampant homelessness — and Portland’s inability to deal with it — has made the city less desirable and has led many longtime residents to leave.
Ensuring that Vancouver and surrounding areas remain a desirable and attractive alternative to Portland will require a clean, well-functioning city.
In recent years, the numbers suggest, Clark County has been a more desirable place to live. We all must work to keep it that way.