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Bob Sojka

Many considerations affect why a person chooses to move to, move from, or stay in a given location. Idaho’s population is currently the fastest-growing in America, and the Magic Valley is the fastest-growing region in Idaho. This is wonderful or awful news depending on your views regarding development, crowding, traffic, jobs, economics, taxes, environment, education and standard of living.

When examining migrations and population changes, net aggregate numbers can be deceiving. Or, to be more positive, examining migration components can be very enlightening. Components reveal causation and implications of change for future planning. Net migration is the balance of departures and arrivals to Idaho. Knowing who is coming and who is leaving, and why each chose to come or go, and how each of these impacts Idaho, is essential to coping with the change, evaluating it and planning for the future.

One surprising component of Idaho’s net population growth is its low native retention rate. Idaho ranks 44th nationally for keeping its native-born adults. Why are so many native Idahoans leaving, when so many folks from adjacent states are moving here? And if we are trading Idahoans for Washingtonians and Californians, will Idaho still be Idaho when it all settles out? Economics, opportunity, lifestyle and politics are key factors.

Reporting and data from various sources validate the complexity of decisions to stay in, leave, or move to Idaho. Many moving to Idaho are cashing-in gains made in adjacent states to exploit Idaho’s lower cost of living. Many volunteer a preference for conservative politics, despite accumulating their nest eggs in more prosperous progressive states. The equation is simple: Work where wages are high and house values inflate rapidly during working years; then cash out to access Idaho’s low housing costs. Upgrade and still bank some equity. It’s been noted, however, that those arriving under that equation generally come later in life, and therefore are less likely to innovate or energize Idaho’s economy in the long term.

Highly educated Idaho millennials are leaving. Less educated out-of-state millennials are arriving. Idaho doesn’t have the volume of career opportunities or salary levels to retain Idahoans with post-graduate-dependent skills to keep them. Exiting millennials express concern for their children’s education and inadequacy of public services and amenities. They also cite lack of culture (arts & entertainment), diversity, and political balance as key dissatisfactions with Idaho, despite family ties and their love of Idaho’s climate and natural beauty.

Less-educated or less-skilled Idahoans can’t cash out lucratively when relocating; that barrier gets steeper the longer the decision to leave is delayed. The younger you leave Idaho, the greater chance of finding an express elevator to success elsewhere. The likelihood of home-grown Idahoans attaining a late-life standard of living in Idaho comparable to, say, an incoming Californian, only exists for a handful of highly technical professions, like physicians, or high-graded Federal positions.

Despite the modest wage scales, Idaho does have demand for unskilled and minimally-skilled labor. If having a job (any job) is your most dire need, jobs are available in Idaho, although laborers will likely need multiple jobs to subsist. Idaho still has the attraction of friendly people, hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and other low-cost activities. But according to the “Department of Numbers” website, Idaho median family income is $7,880 lower than the median US family income of $71,062. Furthermore, a recent study published in Money magazine revealed that Idaho’s low cost of living is not enough to make up for its low wages. Idaho ranks 42nd nationally in “real” income — lower than any of its surrounding states, especially Washington, Wyoming and Utah. In other words, our low cost of living isn’t making up for our low incomes.

Given these insights, Idahoans might do well to consider whether ramping up the state economy via development that attracts retirees from nearby high real-income states cashing out a single lump sum to upgrade their housing, or via filling production lines of low wage industries are truly wise strategies. Both strategies will stress infrastructure and demand greater expenditure without really adding to the overall economic prospects of individuals, or providing the amenities that those leaving Idaho seek elsewhere. Furthermore, it will exacerbate the struggle to overcome Idaho’s inadequate education funding, and provision of health care to working families and seniors.

Rather than catalyzing runaway development that generates greater needs within several categories that are already inadequately met, might prioritizing and meeting needs for existing Idahoans first be more prudent? For example, tourism is Idaho’s third-largest economic sector. Tourists visit, spend and go home. Tourism thrives on adequate infrastructure, pristine environments and open spaces. These same elements benefit Idahoans. Are we investing in or prioritizing any of these?

High-end enterprises demand well-educated people and prefer enlightened communities with excellent schools, services, health care and cultural amenities, that benefit not only newcomers but multi-generational natives as well. Cutting corporate taxes to encourage low return enterprises to stay in or relocate to Idaho won’t lift Idaho’s second-lowest Q3 2017 GDP per capita ($42,046), or its fifth-lowest December 2017 average weekly wage ($759.36), as reported by Business Insider magazine last March.

The measure of “reasonable” taxation is not the dollar amount, but rather what taxes buy vs. what is needed. The goose won’t even begin producing golden eggs on Idaho’s current diet of chicken feed. The best of the flock will likely migrate to lay their eggs in more promising environs.

Bob Sojka is a Twin Falls County Democratic Party precinct captain and former county chairman.

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