Population changes by county between 2010 and 2020. Map courtesy of Virginia Public Access Project.

It is customary – nay, required, by the constitution – for the governor of Virginia to deliver a State of the Commonwealth address. I suggest that in January outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam – and incoming Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin – turn over their speaking slot before the General Assembly to the one person who can deliver the true State of Commonwealth.

I refer, of course, to Hamilton Lombard.

The University of Virginia demographer is not a name most people know, and the subject of demography might strike legislators as even worse than that famously dismal science of economics. But what Lombard could tell legislators – and the governor, for that matter – is something that they should all understand before they start trying to pass any laws or fashion any budgets.

Hamilton Lombard. Courtesy of University of Virginia.

Demography, the saying goes, is destiny. Demography doesn’t just shape the future, though – it also shapes the present, and anyone who wants to make policy in Virginia should understand the numbers that Lombard could tell them. Lombard, officially the estimates program manager for the Demographic Research Group at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, spoke last week to the Governor’s Summit on Rural Prosperity at Longwood University in Farmville. He used the occasion to deliver some eye-popping numbers. Here are some of them.

We all think we know the basic story – most rural areas are losing population. That’s true but only part of the story. Here’s the first headline: Virginia’s rural areas are losing population at a faster rate than rural areas in neighboring states. Why is this?

Politicians might point to policies but Lombard points to something more difficult to change. “I think one of the reasons why we see this difference,” he told the summit, “is in part due to the economic differences we have.”

The three wealthiest localities in the country are all in Virginia; the U.S. Census Bureau ranks Loudoun County, Falls Church and Fairfax County first, second and third based on median household income. Arlington ranks eighth, Fairfax city 10th. That means five of the 10 most affluent localities in the country – half – are in Virginia.

So are some of the poorest. The median household income in Loudoun is $142,299 per year. In Dickenson County, the figure is $29,932. No other state, Lombard said, has such a vast disparity between its richest county and its poorest county. The gap is even wider if you include two small cities in the comparison. In Norton, the median household income is $29,000. In Emporia, the figure is $27,063. The only reason he counts them separately is that Virginia is unique in that counties and cities are separate things. Regardless, whether you’re comparing county-to-county – Loudoun to Dickenson – or locality-to-locality – Loudoun to Emporia – the result is the same. Virginia has more disparity than any other state.

Lombard told me in a follow-up email: “New Mexico has the second largest difference in other states, between two small counties: Los Alamos (where the lab is) and Guadalupe. But within Virginia there are 33 counties or cities that have a larger income gap with Loudoun (one of our largest counties) than exists between Los Alamos and Guadalupe.”

Virginia’s disparities

Virginia has 33 counties or cities that have a larger income gap with Loudoun County (the wealthiest locality in the country with a median household income of $142,299) than exist in any other state. Here they are, along with their median household income:

$ 45,535 Nottoway County
$ 45,011 Waynesboro city
$ 44,835 Carroll County
$ 44,434 Brunswick County
$ 44,303 Lunenburg County
$ 44,230 Roanoke city
$ 43,207 Mecklenburg County
$ 43,073 Patrick County
$ 42,669 Halifax County
$ 42,632 Lexington city
$ 42,099 Tazewell County
$ 40,932 Smyth County
$ 40,655 Covington city
$ 40,573 Charlotte County
$ 40,417 Franklin city
$ 39,820 Scott County
$ 39,758 Russell County
$ 39,030 Hopewell city
$ 38,888 Wise County
$ 38,679 Petersburg city
$ 37,952 Henry County
$ 37,500 Bristol city
$ 37,203 Danville city
$ 36,544 Grayson County
$ 36,297 Radford city
$ 34,371 Martinsville city
$ 33,575 Galax city
$ 32,888 Lee County
$ 32,455 Buena Vista city
$ 31,956 Buchanan County
$ 29,932 Dickenson County
$ 29,000 Norton city
$ 27,063 Emporia city

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Now do I have your attention? And yes, this is why I keep harping on the Northern Virginia legislator who earlier this year criticized Lee County for not doing more to fix its schools (which a few years ago had such leaky roofs that students had to set out trash cans on rainy days). That legislator was a Democrat and Lee County in this past election was our most Republican locality, but maybe those partisan differences aren’t the most important ones. Maybe this is: That legislator represented a county with a median household income of $124,831 (Fairfax County). And he’s telling the people of a county with a median household income of $32,888 that they should dig a little bit deeper?

But back to the numbers. Lombard’s point is that “having such a large economic difference creates a larger economic incentive to move out of rural Virginia.” My words, not his: Northern Virginia, and the rest of the urban crescent, becomes a black hole that inevitably pulls young adults out of rural areas. There’s your “giant sucking sound,” just not the one Ross Perot warned about. Is there any policy fix for that?

The implications of this rural-to-urban migration – which, again, is higher than in neighboring states – play out in more ways than simply a declining population in many rural counties.

“This pattern has really transformed our age structure in the state,” Lombard said.

In 1980, the median age in Virginia didn’t vary that much from one locality to another. In fact, that year Arlington and Bath County both had the same median age – 32. Now, Arlington’s median age has edged up to 35 (the whole country is getting older), but in Bath County it’s soared to 52. And Bath County isn’t even the oldest county in the state. That would be Highland County next door, where the median age is almost 59. In 1980, it was 33. (Lombard, by the way, knows rural Virginia from the inside. He grew up in Bath County, near the Highland County line).

Median age by county in 1980. Most of Virginia is about the same, and rural Virginia is about the same as in rural portions of neighboring states. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.
Median age by county in 2019. Now an age gap has widened, not just between rural Virginia and the urban crescent but between rural Virginia and rural portions of neighboring states. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.

More amazing stats: In 1980, some coalfield counties were among the youngest in the state, if not the nation. The median age in Buchanan County was 26, in Wise County and Dickenson County 28, in Russell County and Tazewell County 29. Now it’s 47.7 in Buchanan, 42 in Wise, 45.5 in Dickenson 46.7 in Russell, 45.6 in Tazewell. We see the same trends across Southside, just with different numbers. Campbell County in 1980 was a youthful 26; now it’s 43.4. In fact, in 1980, localities in Southwest and Southside were consistently either the same median age as Northern Virginia or younger. Now they are distinctly older.

Lombard said if all the localities outside the urban crescent were their own state, “we’d probably be the oldest state in the country.”

He ventured an opinion: “I think these disparities … have made it harder to govern Virginia today than a few years ago. It’s hard to pass regulations on counties that are so different.”

We often think of our differences as political, and they certainly are, but they are also much more than that.

Now for the really hard part: There’s no policy change that’s going to immediately close these gaps. Lombard pointed out that the age structure of rural Virginia has become so imbalanced that simply halting the outflow of young adults won’t reverse these population declines. That’s because deaths way outnumber births. To reverse the populations in many rural counties, we’d need to halt the out-migration of young adults – and then have them stay and home and produce a baby boom of unrealistic proportions.

Now, before we throw up our hands and accept the population decline of Southwest and Southside to be inevitable and irreversible, consider this: “No trend lasts forever,” Lombard said. He pointed out that in the early 1900s the population of Southwest Virginia was growing, and it was parts of Northern Virginia that were seeing population losses. What changed? The economy did. And perhaps it might change again. Perhaps it already is.

These are the places with the highest concentration of people working from home. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.

Lombard said the most fascinating trend to watch is the growth in the number of people working from home, which means they can live wherever they want to, as long as they have a broadband connection. Those numbers were ticking up before the pandemic, and the events of the past two years have only accelerated those trends. The question is whether they will now cause people to pick up and move out of cities and into rural areas. There’s some theoretical reason to think this might happen: Before the pandemic, a Gallup Poll showed that far more people would prefer to live in a rural area than actually do – they just didn’t because that’s not where the jobs are. During the pandemic, we’ve seen some anecdotal evidence of people moving into rural areas. Grayson County administrator Bill Shepley told me in September that his county was seeing an influx of new residents. “We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of calls from people who want to build homes in Grayson,” he said. With the county’s broadband project underway, “we’re trying to market ourselves as a remote work community. I think that’s part of the growth of the future for Grayson County.” The Bluefield Daily Telegraph quoted the president of the local chamber of commerce, Jeff Disibbio, saying much the same thing: “We may have a great influx of people coming back. We are already seeing the number grow with people who have relocated here from larger cities. They love it here. And they feel safe here. We’ve had a great housing boom.”

Now, whether those numbers are big enough to be a real trend that bends the arc of history, we’ll see. Like Lombard, I like to see numbers. But here are some from before the pandemic: The localities with the highest percentage of people working from home tended to be in places with lots of outdoor recreation, which suggests those remote workers like to log off and then go hit the trails. The county with the single largest percentage of people working from home before the pandemic was Nelson County, where 11.7% of the workforce worked from home. That’s a percentage high enough to constitute its own labor sector, which is exactly what people like Shepley are thinking. Lombard pointed out the economic ripple effects of a county having a lot of remote workers: They don’t just bring their job (and their income), but they spend their money locally, which creates jobs for non-remote workers, from dentists to plumbers. He likened it to the rise of the suburbs after World War II. At first they were “bedroom communities,” where people slept but didn’t work. Then business followed because there was money to be made. If these population declines in rural Virginia are to get reversed, this is probably how it will happen.

Lombard pointed me to the 2019 statistics for people working for home. Here are the top localities in Virginia:

  1. Nelson County: 11.74%
  2. Westmoreland County: 9.06%
  3. Charlotte County: 8.97%
  4. Northampton County: 8.7%
  5. King and Queen County: 8.47%
  6. Albemarle County: 8.46%
  7. Winchester: 8.35%
  8. Fluvanna County: 8.34%
  9. Powhatan County: 8.18%
  10. Northumberland County: 8%
Percentage of people working from home, pre-pandemic in 2019. The state’s biggest cluster is around Charlottesville and counties near the Chesapeake Bay. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.

Big picture: We see a cluster around Charlottesville and the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge, and another cluster along the Chesapeake Bay. (Charlotte County in Southside is a notable exception that bears more investigation.) These should be encouraging numbers for counties across Southwest and Southside, particularly as broadband gets expanded.

When we look down to the next tier of numbers, we see another cluster forming on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge near Northern Virginia. In Fauquier County, 7.99% work from home. In Rappahannock County, 7.93%. In Loudoun County, 7.88%. In Clarke County and Warren County on the other side of the Blue Ridge, the figures are 6.75% and 6.88%. And then there’s Winchester at 8.35%. There are also a lot of remote workers in the rural counties around Richmond – with Louisa at 6.6%, Hanover at 6.2% and then Powhatan at 8.18%. Both of those make sense – they’re near the big metros of Northern Virginia and Richmond.

However, we also see a cluster forming in the western part of the state, without the draw of a major metro (unless you count Roanoke). In Bath County, 7.32% work from home. In Franklin County, 7.48% do. In between Hot Springs and Rocky Mount, we see some localities that log in at rates just a little lower than that. In Rockbridge County, 6.52% work from home. In Botetourt County, 6.27% do. In Salem, the figure is 6.55%. In Floyd County, it’s 6.27%. Farther southwest, Galax stands out at 6.47%. And if you want to take an even broader view, across the the state line in West Virginia, Pocahontas County has a work-from-home rate of 8.62% and Pendleton County is at 7.38%. Some people seem to like living in or around mountains, eh?

It’s not hard to imagine those numbers bumping up and that whole region developing a reputation as a good work-from-home location. (I’m happy to give a testimonial: I wasn’t part of the ranks of remote workers when the Census Bureau tallied them up but I am now, so the Botetourt County figures are higher by at least one. As I type these words, I can look out my window and see what birds are showing up at the feeders. Of course, I also have to deal with an obnoxious cat who wants to lie on the keyboard as I type, so it’s not all upside.) That proto-cluster, whether you describe it was running from Hot Springs to Rocky Mount, or Hot Springs to Smith Mountain Lake or Pendleton County to Galax, or simply a mountain-based cluster, raises the question of what other localities in Southwest Virginia need to do to attract more remote workers. Grayson, where the county has made more remote workers an official goal, weighs in at 3.92%. The counties around Bluefield, where the chamber president was talking up an influx of new people (who may not necessarily be remote workers), are pretty low. Mercer County on the West Virginia side is just 2.83%. Over on our side, the figure in Tazewell County is 3.58%. In Bland County, remote workers are almost non-existent — 0.66%. On the other hand, Bland County is a beautiful county with an interstate highway running right through it. Get some broadband and Bland could easily be a remote working hotspot, which might help reduce the 8.2% population decline the county saw over the past decade.

These are the numbers that are shaping and reshaping Virginia. Somehow we just made it through a gubernatorial campaign and neither of the candidates talked about them. But we will all live with the consequences of them, no matter what, so it would be good if our elected officials understood them. For that matter, it would be good if we all did. 

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org...