The latest Census Bureau population estimates. Courtesy of the Census Bureau.

A press release from the U.S. Census Bureau last week generated a lot of attention – and news stories – around the country.

“Over two-thirds of the nation’s counties had a natural decrease in 2021,” the release was headlined.

“Natural decrease” is the polite term demographers use for saying that deaths outnumbered births.

Rural areas have been experiencing this “natural decrease” for quite some time. We don’t have to look far to see this. Across Southwest and Southside Virginia, we have lots of localities where young adults move out, the remaining population ages and between those two trends, nature takes its inevitable course: Deaths outnumber births. The only way to overcome that is to have new people move in, but we don’t see enough of that happening – so that’s why in the 2020 census we saw so many localities lose population. In Southwest Virginia, every locality west of Montgomery County lost population. Across Southside, every locality on the North Carolina line except for those in or near Hampton Roads lost population. So did lots of others.

What’s new here in this census report is that this trend of deaths outnumbering births has accelerated. The Census Bureau attributes this to two things: higher death rates due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a lower birth rate, possibly due to the pandemic, possibly due to other things. (Birth rates have been going down for years but they’ve fallen more sharply during the pandemic.) So what we have here is the unhappy trend line going up, the happy one going down. The result: In 2021, the Census Bureau found that 73% of counties saw a natural decrease – a record number, and a sharp increase, at that. That figure is up from 55.5% in 2020 and 45.5% in 2019. (For statistical purposes, the Census Bureau counts Virginia’s cities as counties.)

This is an astonishing figure, one with deep implications. Demography is destiny, they say. Demography is also the economy. It sets the template for school enrollments and labor pools. Gov. Glenn Youngkin is currently unhappy because community college enrollments are going down and there are jobs going unfilled. He’s right to be concerned about both things but ultimately the problem there isn’t policy, it’s demographics. The number of college-age students is shrinking because birth rates two decades or so ago were lower than they were before. You can’t enroll people who weren’t born. (I discussed this in more detail in an earlier column.) The import of this Census Bureau report is that this problem is getting worse, not better. (I’ll have more to say about this in a future column, so that’s a modest incentive to keep coming back.)

However, there’s more to this report than simply that one trend. There’s a second trend buried in the numbers, and it’s more hopeful for rural areas: Most of America’s counties – 65% – saw an increase in net migration. That’s another demographic term, for more people moving in than moving out.

Let’s try to put this in plain language: Most counties (73%) saw more people die than were born. But most counties (65%) also saw more people moving in than moving out. Those are two diametrically opposed trends. How do they balance out? Of particular interest to us, how do they balance out in Southwest and Southside?

Here’s where things get interesting.

The census report shows that all but two localities west of Montgomery County continued to lose population, so that’s a modest change. The two localities that moved from the minus column to the plus column were Radford and Grayson County. That’s not much consolation to all the other localities but both of these examples are instructive, especially Grayson. Grayson was one of those localities that saw the number of deaths over births accelerate. In 2019, the county had 84 more deaths than births. In 2021, it saw 133 more deaths than births. But Grayson saw an influx of new residents that more than made up for that. In 2019, Grayson had two more people move in than move out. In 2021, that figure swelled to 190. That’s quite a change. Now, Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University Virginia, cautions that we shouldn’t put too much stock on one-year numbers (even if the Census Bureau was excited enough to put out a press release). Still, these numbers in Grayson match exactly what county administrator Bill Shepley told me in an interview last September. Thanks to the pandemic, “We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of calls from people who want to build homes in Grayson,” he said then.

I’ve been skeptical of a Zoom-era mass migration to rural areas – partly because the data on Zoom-era migrations has shown more interest in people moving from cities to suburbs than from either to rural area – but that doesn’t mean there’s no migration to rural areas whatsoever. For one thing, there’s clearly a trend of people moving out of the biggest cities. New York saw its population fall 6.9% in just one year, according the Census Bureau. San Francisco, 6.7%. That are pretty jaw-dropping declines. Those people are obviously going somewhere. So where? The census saw the usual gains in Sunbelt locations; that’s hardly a new trend. (Dallas added more people than anywhere else, followed by Phoenix, Houston and Austin, in that order). However, we also see some interesting, though smaller, spikes in other places. For instance, in Grayson County, the first (and we hope) last full year of the pandemic shows a migration from somewhere. The real question isn’t so much where those people are coming from (that’s interesting but not necessarily important) but how extensive that is migration is (that’s both interesting and important). For Grayson, it was extensive enough to turn a population-losing county to a population-gaining county, at least for one year.

We see something similar in Radford. There, births outnumber deaths – a rarity – but the gap is closing. In 2021, Radford saw just seven more births than deaths. But it saw the net in-migration soar from 91 to 404. I’m always cautious of data around college towns because I’m never quite sure how much college students are skewing the numbers, no matter what the Census Bureau says. (For what it’s worth, the demographer Lombard, upon whom I rely, cautions the same thing.) So I wouldn’t get excited about Radford alone, but Radford in the context of Grayson County starts to look different.

Now let’s look east of the Blue Ridge. Here we see seven more localities that lost population in the 2020 census appear to gain population in these 2021 estimates: Amherst County, Brunswick County, Dinwiddie County, Franklin County, Martinsville, Patrick County and Prince Edward County.

That’s pretty exciting, right? Actually, what’s more exciting – potentially – are the numbers moving around beneath the surface. While we’re seeing the gap between deaths over births widen in most places, we’re also seeing in-migration start to outnumber out-migration in many rural areas – which is helping to put some localities into the plus column for population growth but also slow the population loss in many others.

So, yes, in many localities in rural Virginia, we now have more people moving in than moving out – the only reason this trend doesn’t show up in the overall population tallies is that these numbers are outnumbered by all those deaths. Still, this is a change and we should always pay attention to changes. Have we really seen the pandemic cause some people to make some fundamentally different choices about where they want to live and work? After all, the same Pew Research Center study that showed the pandemic hadn’t prompted more people to be interested in moving to rural areas still showed a lot more people interested in moving to rural areas than actually live there. That means we don’t need to persuade anyone to change their preference from city to country – we just need to persuade those who live in cities but prefer to live in the country that they really can move here and make a living. Thank you, Zoom. Thank you, rural broadband (for places that do have rural broadband).

Again, as Lombard rightfully cautions, we shouldn’t put too much stock into one-year numbers. These things can bounce up and down like the stock market. Maybe this is just a one-year blip. But if this turns out to be a longer-term trend, this could be a very big deal indeed.

For now these trends of more people moving in than moving out are mostly everywhere except far Southwest Virginia. That part of Virginia still generally sees more people moving out than moving in, although four counties there – Lee, Scott, Smyth and Washington counties – are happy exceptions. In this part of Virginia, we see the most pronounced trends in favor of increased net in-migration around the Roanoke Valley and the counties along the Blue Ridge Mountains, with some smaller numbers across Southside.

Let’s look at just a few localities to show how this is playing out.

In Botetourt County, we saw 198 more people move in than move out in 2019. In 2021, that figure swelled to 499.

In Bedford County, net in-migration went from 289 to 1,042.

In Franklin County, net in-migration went from 95 to 776.

In Amherst County, net in-migration went from dead even to plus-159 in 2021.

In Campbell County, we saw 185 more people move out than in during 2019. In 2021, that trend reversed and we saw 34 more people move in than out.

Now, all those counties are within commuting range of one or both of our biggest metros, Roanoke and Lynchburg.

So let’s look further out.

In Floyd County, net in-migration went from 15 in 2019 to 126 in 2021.

In Patrick County, net in-migration went from 37 to 266.

And then there’s the Grayson County example we looked at before.

As Bob Dylan once sang, “something is happening here …” except this time we do think we know what it is.

Let’s look now at those four exceptions in Southwest Virginia.

Lee County: In 2019, 95 more people moved out than moved in. In 2021, that reversed, with 140 more people moving in than moving out.

Scott County: Net in-migration went from 23 in 2019 to 116 in 2021.

Washington County: Another reversal. In 2019, Washington County saw 71 more people move out than in. In 2021, it saw 232 more people move in than out.

Smyth County: Still another reversal. In 2019, Smyth saw 147 more people move out than in. In 2021, that turned into 73 more people moving in than out.

We’ll come back to the counties in Southwest that aren’t seeing these trends but for now let’s look across Southside. The numbers get smaller the further we get away from the Blue Ridge, but there is still movement.

Appomattox County: Net in-migration went from 24 in 2019 to 212 in 2021.

Prince Edward County: In 2019, 96 more people moved out than in. In 2021, that reversed with 96 more moving in than out.

Pittsylvania County: In 2019, 269 more people moved out than in. In 2021, that reversed and 76 more people moved in than out.

Danville: In 2019, 410 more people moved out than in. In 2021, that reversed and 92 more people moved in than out. (I don’t claim to be Nostradamus but I did predict in an earlier column that Danville would soon start seeing population increase. It’s not there yet because of that deaths/births ratio, but the fundamentals that will make this happen seem to be in place.)

Halifax County: A net loss of 115 in 2019 turned into a net gain of 67 in 2021.

Mecklenburg County: In 2019, 136 more people moved in than out. In 2021, that rose to 236.

Lunenburg County: Net in-migration rose from 17 to 84.

Charlotte County: A net loss of 25 turned into a net gain of 19 in 2021.

Nottoway County: A net loss of 114 in 2019 turned into a net gain of 18 in 2021..

You get the idea. There are some places that have been immune to this trend. Carroll County and Roanoke County actually saw net in-migration drop. Giles County and Roanoke saw net out-migration grow. Bristol and Lynchburg saw net in-migration turn into net out-migration. Maybe those mean something. Or maybe they’re all just examples of why we shouldn’t hang too much on one year’s worth of data.

By now you may be cross-eyed from all these numbers (I sure am), so let’s shift to the big question: What does all this mean? First of all, it might not mean anything. I feel compelled to issue that caveat yet again. But if it does mean something, then we’re on the verge of seeing some rural localities slow their rate of population decline – and others reverse it altogether. Here’s something the census map doesn’t show: There are some localities that showed such an increase in in-migration that they came close to gaining population – which suggests that if trends continue, they might actually gain in future years.

For instance, in this estimate, Pulaski County saw its population drop by just one, Lunenburg County by just four.

These numbers ought to be greeted with cautious enthusiasm, and perhaps some policy discussions. There’s very little we can do directly to change the imbalance of deaths outnumbering births. We obviously can’t change the number of deaths at all. Deaths will happen and, as the baby boomer generation ages and shuffles off the mortal coil, those numbers are going to be staggering. We can change the ratio – if and only if there are more births. That depends on a lot of factors, most of them beyond our control. But if there’s a net in-migration, that might bring more young adults who might, umm, you know, reproduce. From a policy standpoint, the one thing that localities can do is to do whatever they need to do to encourage that in-migration – any ages will do but the younger these newcomers are, the better. (Here’s what I need to make my obligatory observation that having schools that are literally falling apart is not going to help attract parents or future parents. If the state wants to encourage this flicker of an encouraging demographic trend, it would pony up money for school construction and modernization.)

So, for all of you who saw a news story with the headline about how two-thirds of counties have seen more people die than born – that was absolutely correct. But there’s also a lot more to that story, and not all of it is grim.

Dwayne Yancey

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