Economic Changes in Southwestern Idaho

Many factors have affected the economic picture on international, national, state and local levels over the past five to 10 years.

In Southwestern Idaho one example is a strong population growth. Over the decade from 2005 to 2015, this region’s population increased from nearly 617,000 to 750,000, a 22 percent increase. The two urban counties, Canyon and Ada, grew faster than this rate, while the other eight counties grew slower, highlighting the continually deepening divide in urban-rural population growth that is occurring across Idaho.

EM-fig-1 Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Since emerging from the recession in 2010, southwestern Idaho added 58,000 people, or 8.4 percent of the population. Ada and Canyon grew at 10.4 percent and 9.5 percent respectively, while no other counties in the region grew more than 4 percent. Four counties – Washington, Owyhee, Elmore and Adams – actually lost population.

EM_fig2Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Much of Canyon County’s rapid growth can be explained by its proximity to Ada County, which is home to Idaho’s capital and largest city. Many people move to Canyon County because it offers lower housing costs than its neighbor, but still maintains access to good jobs and both natural and cultural amenities.

Youth Population

Despite overall growth in the region, the youth population remained virtually unchanged, as total population growth was driven by retirement-age households. Between 2010 and 2015, the population of those under 15 years of age increased by 830, from 160,860 to 161,690, a total increase of only one half of a percent. As with total population, the youth population had the most growth in the two urban counties – Canyon and Ada. In fact, the under age 15 group in the two urban counties grew by 2,900 or 2.1 percent, while the eight other rural counties lost over 2,000, 8 percent, of their under-15 population. In Boise County, just north of Ada County, the youth population declined by an even greater 21 percent.


Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Low Incomes

Southwestern Idaho also shows relatively low incomes. While Ada County’s per-capita personal income was $43,700 in 2014, 19 percent higher than the state average of $36,700, it still fell more than $2,000 – 5 percent – shy of the national average. Outside of Ada County incomes were substantially lower. The only other county above the state average was Valley County, with a per capita income of $41,400. Of the remaining eight counties, Boise County had the highest per capita income at $35,000, while Canyon had the lowest at $27,000, just 75 percent of the state average and only 57 percent of the national average.

EM_fig4Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics


Southwestern Idaho’s low incomes are further reflected in poverty rates. As with per capita income, Valley and Ada counties have the lowest poverty rates among the southwestern Idaho counties. According to estimates from the 2014 American Community Survey, Ada County, as the urban hub of southwestern Idaho, had an estimated poverty rate of 12.8 percent, significantly lower than the national rate of 15.6 percent. Valley County, which has benefited from residents’ high incomes, has an even lower rate at 12 percent. In many outlying rural counties, the poverty rate was much higher. Outside of Valley County, only one county, Adams, had a rate lower than the national rate. The other counties were at or above the national average.

EM_fig5Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Five of the region’s 10 counties have higher-than-average poverty rates for children under 18. In Owyhee County, one in three youth live in poverty; in Canyon County, the second largest southwestern Idaho county by population, the ratio is more than one in four.

EM_fig6Source: U.S. Census Bureau


Given the income and poverty differentials, it is not surprising there is a significant disparity in unemployment rates across southwestern Idaho. Ada County’s unemployment rate in June 2016 was 3.3 percent – lower than the state rate of 3.7 percent and significantly lower than the national rate of 4.5 percent. Yet outside of Ada County, the average rate was notably higher, at 4.6 percent. Excluding Canyon County, from which many workers in Ada County commute, the rate increased to 4.8 percent.

EM_fig7Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics


Employment in southwestern Idaho is consistent with the state’s overall employment picture. While Ada and Canyon counties have grown well past their pre-recession employment levels, rural counties have not. In six of the eight rural counties in southwestern Idaho, the overall level of employment remains below pre-recession marks.

EM_fig8Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Service-Oriented Industries

As job growth is centralized in Ada and Canyon counties, the economy has become increasingly service oriented. Service industries like retail trade, food service and accommodation have outstripped traditional production industries like natural resources and manufacturing. In the decade from 2005 to 2015, service industries grew by 16.7 percent in southwestern Idaho, adding 33,000 new jobs. Goods-producing industries, on the other hand, shrank by 13.4 percent, deducting 8,000 jobs from the economy.

EM_fig9Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

The shift to services is important to note because it reduces the earning opportunities for low-skilled workers. While many service sectors like business services and health care support high-paying professional careers, low-skilled workers in service industries have low earnings. Workers in manufacturing, for example, are often categorized as low-skilled, yet in southwestern Idaho they can earn 42 percent more than entry workers in food service. So while the shift towards services has provided many amenities to the region’s growing population, it has not been entirely beneficial to low-skilled workers.

The challenges facing southwestern Idaho’s economy today are also opportunities for the workers of the future. The continuing shift from traditional manual industries like fabrication, wood products and mining has opened up new opportunities in health care, advanced manufacturing, information technology, and business and financial services. Unfortunately, this structural change has also caused an increase of lower-paying jobs in service sectors like retail and food service. The key for today’s youth is ensuring that they have the requisite skills to be the beneficiaries of the technology boom, as they will be increasingly unable to rely on traditional production industries to provide sufficient incomes., regional economist
Idaho Department of Labor
(208) 332-3570 ext. 3455

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