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

Which locality in Southwest and Southside Virginia has the biggest problem with people moving out?

a) Lee County, in the state’s southwestern tip, where the General Assembly this year was forced to revoke the charter of the town of St. Charles because so few people are left there that no one wants to serve on the town council?

b) Roanoke, with its growing ecosystem of startups built around the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, a lively arts scene, and robust network of greenways and other outdoor amenities?

c) Buchanan County, a coalfield county that lost 15.5% of its population during the past decade, a higher percentage than any other locality in the state?

If you answered (c) that’s understandable – but wrong.

If you answered (a), that’s also understandable, but also wrong and a giveaway that you didn’t read my column last week where I pointed out that Lee County now has more people moving in than moving out. (I come from a family of teachers. That gene passed me by but I did learn how to frame a trick question.)

The correct answer, according to the latest report from the U.S. Census Bureau is (b) – Roanoke.

At this point, you’re either thinking I’m crazy, or the Census Bureau is wrong, or both. I’ll explain. No, there won’t be a test, but all of life is a test, so ignore these lessons at your peril.

The Census Bureau recently released one of its annual population estimates for 2021 – different from its every-10-years headcount. These estimates are significant because they capture the first full year of the pandemic and show some trends that, if they continue, will reshape the country in some pretty profound ways. Among them: Birth rates are continuing to fall (which means deaths are outpacing births in most of the country) and there are intriguing signs of new domestic migration patterns. It’s not as simple as saying people are moving out of cities and into suburbs and rural areas because some cities (mostly in the Sunbelt) are very much growing, some rural areas (including, alas, those in much of Appalachia) are still seeing more people move out than move in. But many rural areas – including parts of Southwest and Southside – are now seeing net in-migration, many of them for the first time in years. I dealt with that in an earlier column; go read it. I even quote the country singer Ray Wylie Hubbard, who’s playing in Floyd County in May. The usual caveats: This is one year’s worth of data; we don’t know if this is just a blip or the first stage of a longer-term trend. Check back in a few years and we’ll know more. Still, these numbers are fascinating enough – and potentially important enough – that they do merit discussion.

Some basics: Localities gain or lose population through either of two ways. Either deaths outnumber births or births outnumber deaths. Or more people move in than move out, or the other way around.

The most exciting trend in the latest census report dealt with domestic migration (as opposed to immigration from other countries). Some 65% of counties across the country saw more people move in than move out. But, as I pointed out earlier, some of our localities are in that other 35%.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, we’re told. Why we’d want to do that is beyond me – so does the cat who is staring disapprovingly at me as I type these words from my home office – but the old saying makes a good point. There are lots of ways to look at data, so here’s one way to look at the latest round of data.

What are the localities in Southwest and Southside with the biggest population outflows, as measured by the net loss of more people moving out than moving in? Here they are, for the year ending June 2021:

Roanoke: -1,169

Buchanan County: -176

Wise County: -118

Lynchburg: -116

Dickenson County: -106

Bristol: -77

Bath County: -61

Bland County -25

Emporia: -22

Galax -16

Alleghany County -13

Norton: -12

Russell County: -6

Tazewell County -3

(Note: I’m leaving out Montgomery County, which showed a net loss of 1,075 from more people moving out than moving in. Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, says the pandemic messed up data collections in college towns and we should just ignore those. In layman’s terms, they’re whacked.)

Roanoke’s figures, though, are more believable. The city has long had more people moving out than moving in – eight of the 10 years in the previous decade saw a net loss through out-migration, and one year that net loss was as much as 1,076, so this figure isn’t too far out of line with that. We just didn’t see that because Roanoke was busy recording more births than deaths – its birth rates covered up its out-migration. Now birth rates have fallen and they don’t.

Pretty much any number out of Roanoke is going to be large, relative to other localities in the region, simply because it’s our most populous locality. However, here’s a useful comparison: As a percentage of the city population, the net outflow from Roanoke in 2021 was 1.16%. In Buchanan County, it was 0.8%. In Wise, it’s 0.3%. In Lynchburg, it’s 0.1%. So, yes, Roanoke has an out-migration problem. It has almost always had an out-migration problem – that will just become a more urgent problem to deal with if birth rates stay this low. We know instinctively why counties in the coalfields see more people moving out than moving in – the collapse of coal and the general lack of economic opportunity in rural areas. However, in this report, many of the coalfield counties saw net in-migration, and those that posted net out-migration recorded lower deficits than they have in recent years. Roanoke, though, saw a bigger deficit.

These figures run counter to the cheery impression that many community leaders in Roanoke have of their city. They run counter to my impressions of the Star City, too. Yet there they are. It’s probably harder to “fix” out-migration than it is to “fix” declining birth rates. The latter is a national, even worldwide trend. The former is more unique to Roanoke. (I realize with some trepidation that some candidates for the Roanoke City Council will seize on these numbers and blame them on whatever short-term issue they find convenient as a campaign issue. It’s not that simple, though. Since these trends have been around for a while, they can’t be attributed to something the current council did or didn’t do last week. They are more structural and should be addressed as such. Nor are they unique to Roanoke; they’re just more pronounced there.)

In this context, the out-migration from the remaining localities on the list doesn’t look that bad. Their biggest problem right now isn’t people moving out, it’s people dying. They are caught in a demographic trap: Median ages in rural areas are higher, and old people have an unfortunate tendency to die. We can’t fix dying and we can’t really fix the birth rate, either, but if localities had more young adults moving in, the birth rate – even a lower one – might offset at least part of the death rate.

That brings us to the next way we can look at this data: Which places have the biggest net in-migrations? Here are the 10 localities in Southwest and Southside with the largest number of people moving in compared to those moving out:

Bedford County: 1,042

Franklin County: 776

Botetourt County: 499

Radford: 404

Patrick County: 266

Pulaski County: 246

Brunswick County: 238

Mecklenburg County: 236

Washington County: 232

Appomattox County: 212

Roanoke (and to a much lesser extent, Lynchburg) is seeing more people move out than in but the surrounding counties are seeing just the opposite. Bedford County’s ranking at the top of this list shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s been posting population growth – double-digit population growth – since the 1970s. It’s got Lynchburg to the east, Roanoke to the west, Smith Mountain Lake to the south. Those are three big drivers. Franklin County has two – the lake and Roanoke. After that, it’s a big jump down to Botetourt County, just outside Roanoke, and Radford, part of the New River Valley. Pulaski County, a little further down the list and just across the river from Radford, also benefits from being part of the New River Valley. Washington County is outside Bristol; Appomattox County gets growth out of Lynchburg.

Other localities on the list are more interesting, though, because they lack a nearby metro – Patrick County, for instance, or Brunswick and Mecklenburg counties in Southside. That seems like more organic growth. Whatever they’re doing they should probably keep on doing. (As I pointed out in an earlier column, Brunswick’s newfound population growth is historic. While this may turn out to be a one-year-only trend, it comes in the context of a county whose population peaked in 1930 and has dropped in almost every census since.) Rural counties that want to gain population may not be able to learn much from Bedford County; we can’t all have two metros and a lake development. But there may, indeed, be lessons to be learned in Patrick, Brunswick and Mecklenburg.

In Patrick and Brunswick (but not Mecklenburg), the influx of new people was enough to overcome not only the outflow of people moving away, but also the county’s higher number of deaths over births. This was true in some other localities, too, just on a smaller scale. Here are the others in Southwest and Southside that see a net gain on in-migration over out-migration (even if they might be losing population overall because deaths outnumber births):

Rockbridge County 206

Buckingham County 197

Roanoke County 192

Grayson County 190

Amherst County 159

Carroll County 145

Floyd County 126

Scott County 116

Lee County 109

Martinsville 99

Wythe County 99

Prince Edward County 96

Salem 96

Lexington 95

Danville 92

Lunenburg County 84

Greensville County 77

Pittsylvania County 76

Cumberland County 69

Halifax County 67

Campbell County 34

Nottoway County 18

Highland County 11

Buena Vista 1

And then there’s Covington where net in-migration and net out-migration balance out at zero.

Some takeaways from this: Twelve localities – including some very rural counties – are seeing a bigger numerical net gain than Roanoke County, our biggest suburb.

Given their histories, Lee and Scott ought to be feeling pretty good – each county saw more new people move in, on a net basis, than did Salem, or, well, Roanoke, for that matter. While they could certainly use more people moving in, their big challenge is simply mortality – and a lack of fecundity.

That brings us to the next way to slice the data: Which localities are seeing the biggest gaps between deaths and births? It’s not quite fair to call these localities our “death capitals” because there may be other localities that record more deaths, but these 10 localities have the biggest difference between deaths and births, all on the death side. Put another way, these are the localities most in need of a baby boom:

Roanoke County: -505

Henry County: -500

Washington County: -447

Bedford County: -430

Tazewell County: -427

Pittsylvania County: -429

Danville: -368

Smyth County: -335

Franklin County: -311

Mecklenburg County: -296

Roanoke County’s place on top of this list may surprise some but it shouldn’t. This is the numerical expression of a long-term trend. Roanoke County’s suburbs are “aging out” – and eventually dying out. Roanoke County is very much in need of a youth movement. All these localities are.

Notice Bedford County and Franklin County make this list; they also rank first and second for the biggest surpluses of people moving in – those inflows help cover up the big deaths-over-births imbalances in those counties. Other localities – Pittsylvania County, Danville, Mecklenburg County, Washington County – are able to erase at least some of the death deficit with new residents. But some on this list don’t – Henry County and Tazewell County.

Now for the deaths-over-births figures for other localities:

Wise County -255

Pulaski County -250

Botetourt County -249

Scott County -249

Carroll County -243

Halifax County -238

Buchanan County -228

Patrick County -221

Campbell County -220

Lee County -210

Wythe County -197

Rockbridge County -175

Russell County -173

Alleghany County -164

Amherst County -158

Dickenson County -152

Grayson County – 133

Bristol -129

Giles County -125

Montgomery County -110

Brunswick County -107

Lunenburg County -104

Buckingham County -69

Bland County -49

Cumberland County -44

Nottoway County -42

Prince Edward County -41

Floyd County -36

Greensville County -34

Craig County -42

Bath County -21

Highland County -21

Martinsville -9

There are only five localities in our region where births outnumber deaths and, with the possible exception of Lynchburg, all the numbers are pretty small:

Lynchburg: 178

Lexington: 45

Roanoke 34

Appomattox County: 24

Radford: 7

That means in all these other localities, it’s death that’s driving the population train. Look at Henry County: Its population went down 500 because deaths outnumbered births but went down only 40 from more people moving out than moving in. Tazewell County went down 427 from deaths over births but only went down by three from more people moving out than moving in. We have 17 localities where population went down two ways – both deaths over births and a net loss of people through out-migration – but the real problem there isn’t the moving van, it’s the hearse.

If you add all the coal counties together, they had a net loss of 196 people through out-migration topping in-migration. Roanoke’s net loss was nearly 17 times that. Could it be that exodus out of the coal counties is nearly over – that just about everyone who’s going to move out already has? If so, maybe our real demographic challenge isn’t in coal country but in our biggest metro?

Dwayne Yancey

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