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

Let’s say you’re governor of Virginia.

Before you, on your desk, are some pressing problems. The General Assembly has yet to produce a budget, and might not produce one for weeks yet (so technically that’s something not on your desk), which makes it hard to plan for the next two years. Gas prices are high – you’ve got one idea for what to do about that, but the other party, which controls part of the legislature, has another. There are appointments to be made, policies to be enacted, all the other minutiae of government.

But then there are longer-term trends that a governor has to worry about, trends that are reshaping Virginia in ways that often elude the daily headlines. There’s the energy transition, as coal declines and renewables rise – regardless of whether there’s a state mandate or not. There’s an economy that is, as an Old Dominion University report warned, “pulling apart” the state between its more prosperous parts and its less prosperous ones. And then there are the population trends that swirl around under the surface and aren’t always visible in the decennial census but which pose both long-term challenges and opportunities.

We know Glenn Youngkin is aware of at least one of those trends, because he talked about it during the campaign. Not as much as he talked about other things, of course, but it was there, for anyone who cared to pay attention: He warned that more people are moving out of Virginia than into Virginia. We don’t see that in the latest census, except indirectly. Virginia gained population, albeit more slowly than in the past. That’s because births outnumbered deaths – and also outnumbered the net loss through outmigration.

That ou-tmigration is not new. It’s been happening since 2013. Every year since then the state has seen a net loss on the outmigration versus in-migration scales. That’s the first time Virginia has been in the net-loss column since the Internal Revenue Service started producing such data in the 1970s. (The IRS knows lots of things, including where you file your tax returns from.) Politicians may have one set of explanations for why Virginia is now seeing out-migration but demographics have another: Our population is aging, and many of those people moving out are retirees who are moving South. So are many young adults, who are being forced out of Northern Virginia by high housing prices, and the promise of jobs elsewhere. We may not be able to halt the flight of snowbirds but Youngkin is right to be worried about the net balance. Ronald Reagan used to talk about people “voting with their feet.” Here, people are voting with their feet against Virginia. Their rationale may be logical, but Candidate Youngkin was right to be concerned about the numbers and presumably Governor Youngkin still is.

Now we have some more numbers for him to be concerned about (and we’re told that the former co-CEO of The Carlyle Group does like numbers).

The Census Bureau recently released its annual report of population estimates for 2021, different from the actual headcoun in 2020.  It was a far more fascinating report than such things usually are, so fascinating that I’ve already milked four columns out of it and am now milking a fifth. I’ve written about how these numbers – which reflect the first full year of the pandemic – show tantalizing hints of a Zoom-era migration out of many (but not all) metro areas into many (but not all) rural areas. I’ve looked at how deaths still outnumber births in most localities, and so computed how many people each locality in Southwest and Southside would need to attract to gain population overall. I’ve looked at which locality in our region has the most trouble with people moving out (surprise answer: Roanoke). And then I’ve looked at that data through the lens of metro areas, not individual localities, which shows that over the past year the Roanoke Valley metro area lost population while the Lynchburg metro gained population. Today, I’ll slice all that data another way, by putting the localities in Southwest and Southside into a statewide context.

The same caveats still apply: This is just one year of data, and, just as the stock market goes up and down but still has an overall trend, so, too, does census data. These numbers are interesting but we don’t know yet if they’re just a one-year blip or the start of a longer-term trend. The surgeon general might say that excess consumption of census estimates could be hazardous to your health.

All right, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dig into the numbers.

Let’s start with the number that astonished many in Roanoke – that the city lost population over the past year. The census showed the city’s population down by 1,010. That happened for two reasons: The city’s birth rate fell so low that births barely outnumbered deaths – and then 1,169 more people moved out than moved in. That outmigration was higher than in years past, but not that much higher; the real change was in the births/deaths column – the more that balances out, the more outmigration/in-migration matters.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s just deal with the overall population change of -1,010. How does that compare statewide? Here’s how. These are the localities that showed the 10 biggest population drops, on a numerical basis (as opposed to a percentage basis because the goal here to look at raw numbers):

  1. Fairfax County -8,752
  2. Arlington County -5,801
  3. Alexandria -4,391
  4. Norfolk -2,502
  5. Virginia Beach -1,701
  6. Newport News -1,329
  7. Montgomery County -1,035
  8. Roanoke -1,010
  9. Charlottesville -751
  10. Henrico County -744

Ideally, you’ve already spotted the big shocker here: The three biggest population losers are in Northern Virginia. And seven of the 10 biggest are in the urban crescent.

We’re told by demographer Hamilton Lombard of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service to pretty much ignore figures from college towns, because data collection there went sideways during the pandemic, so maybe we should drop off Montgomery County and Charlottesville. Nobody really believes Montgomery County is losing population. Let’s not get hung up on that, though. The point here is: Roanoke’s population loss isn’t that unusual because lots of urban areas lost population – but holy smokes, Northern Virginia lost population?!

For at least one year, with those localities, yes. Outlying parts of Northern Virginia still gained population – Loudoun County, Prince William County, for instance. But some smaller parts of Northern Virginia lost people – Falls Church was down 161, Manassas Park down 138, Manassas down 20. This fits into a larger pattern nationwide that saw many major metros lose population. Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco all lost population, although many Sunbelt metros gained people, with Dallas, Phoenix, Houston and Austin leading the way. In that respect, parts of Northern Virginia were acting more like part of the Northeast than part of the Sunbelt.

More context: While I’m using numerical drops here rather than percentage drops, the percentage drops don’t change the picture that much. Over the past two years, the biggest population decline in Virginia, on a percentage basis, is in Alexandria at -3.0%. Arlington is second at -2.8%. Falls Church third at -2.1%. By contrast, Buchanan County, which on a percentage basis saw the largest population decline during the last census, is just -0.2%. So yes, we’re seeing localities in Northern Virginia losing population at a faster rate than the coal counties — or any other counties in Virginia, for that matter. Over the past two years, the fastest population growth on a percentage basis has been along the Chesapeake Bay: Middlesex County is up 2.9%, Northumberland County up 2.2%.

Yet more context: These short-term population declines in Northern Virginia aren’t completely new, we’re just paying more attention to them for the first time. The Census Bureau’s estimates showed Fairfax County consistently gaining population until 2018, when population losses began. Alexandria gained population in every year of the past decade except 2018. Arlington gained population in each one, so this trend is completely new there. This isn’t an every-10-years census, of course, but still …

This means several things: First, as noted before, maybe this is a one-year thing that means nothing. Second, the fact that Fairfax County has now been posting population losses since 2018 is potentially significant. Maybe this is a real trend. If so, and if this sticks for the rest of the decade, here’s how significant that would be. The last census in which Fairfax County lost population was 1830, when Andrew Jackson was president and Virginia still went to the Ohio River. Arlington has only lost population in three census headcounts: 1830, 1900 and 1980. Alexandria has only lost population in one – 1980. Virginia Beach has never lost population in a census.

These population declines in the 2021 population estimates were caused by the same things that Roanoke’s was – falling birth rates and a growing number of people moving out.

Let’s zero in on that net outmigration. Here are the localities in Virginia that have seen the biggest population losses due to more people moving out than more people moving in.

  1. Fairfax County -17,789
  2. Arlington County -7,685
  3. Alexandria -6,188
  4. Norfolk -3,540
  5. Virginia Beach -3,022
  6. Prince William County -2,824
  7. Newport News -2,293
  8. Henrico County -1,552
  9. Roanoke -1,169
  10. Charlottesville -1,116

These numbers may appear staggering – Fairfax County has a loss in one year that’s bigger than the entire city of Martinsville – but they aren’t necessarily new. Looking back over the past decade, we see some years where Fairfax County had a slightly bigger net outmigration (in 2015, it was -18,160). But we also see this: Fairfax County has been routinely seeing a net outmigration every year starting in 2011. That’s definitely a trend, one that a declining birth rate can no longer cover up.

Now, we’re a publication dedicated to Southwest and Southside, but these trends matter to us anyway. Our schools are mostly paid for by the state government, and Northern Virginia is the biggest source of those tax revenues. Put another way, Fairfax County helps pay for schools in Franklin County, so if the population starts going down in Fairfax County, that starts to have a practical effect for us, too. I’m not about to go around saying that the golden goose is dead, but if these trends hold up, then we will be moving into a different phase of population growth in Virginia, one that would have some pretty profound implications for resource distribution.

So who is gaining population, then? Mostly the outer suburbs. Here are the 10 biggest population gainers last year:

  1. Chesterfield County 5,122
  2. Loudoun County 4,995
  3. Stafford County 3,273
  4. Spotsylvania County 3,201
  5. Frederick County 1,951
  6. Prince William County 1,734
  7. Chesapeake 1,590
  8. Suffolk 1,509
  9. Hanover County 1,501
  10. James City County 1,470

One big surprise there: The biggest-gaining locality isn’t in Northern Virginia, it’s in the Richmond suburbs. It may be useful here to look at the next 10 localities:

  1. Louisa County 1,091
  2. Albemarle County 1,039
  3. Culpeper County 879
  4. Fauquier County 877
  5. New Kent County 811
  6. Orange County 792
  7. York County 761
  8. Powhatan County 703
  9. Rockingham County 636
  10. Bedford County 627

What we see here is that when population growth pushed into rural areas, it went to the ones nearest major metros – such as Louisa County on the fringes of the Richmond area – as opposed to rural areas in the heart of Southwest and Southside. We also see Bedford County make the list; it’s the big population driver for the Lynchburg metro. In all these places, be it the Top 10 or the Top 20, the big population driver is net in-migration as opposed to births outnumbering deaths – because in some of these places deaths outnumber births.

Just to be consistent, let’s look at the localities that are seeing the most net in-migration.

  1. Chesterfield County 4,402
  2. Spotsylvania County 2,861
  3. Stafford County 2,583
  4. Frederick County 1,987
  5. Loudoun County 1,651
  6. James City County 1,561
  7. Suffolk 1,381
  8. Louisa County 1,208
  9. Bedford County 1,042
  10. Chesapeake 1,014

With this list we see more clearly where people are moving. The growth from Northern Virginia is now rippling further out, even across the Blue Ridge into Frederick County, around Winchester. The one exception to this list is Bedford County, the only locality on this list that’s not somewhere on the fringes of the urban crescent.

Finally, here’s one more way to slice this data – net in-migration (or outmigration) by metro area:

  1. Richmond 6,788
  2. Winchester 2,009
  3. Lynchburg 1,287
  4. Charlottesville 851
  5. Staunton 617
  6. Roanoke 420
  7. Bristol 271
  8. Harrisonburg -6
  9. Blacksburg -494
  10. Hampton Roads -2,072
  11. Northern Virginia -26,149

When we look at the data this way, we get a handle on just how big the outflows from Northern Virginia are. Keep in mind that the official definition of the Northern Virginia metro includes places as far out as Madison County, although neither the Richmond nor Charlottesville MSAs include Louisa County. In any case, what we see here is that the Lynchburg metro is attracting almost three times as many newcomers (on a net basis) as the Roanoke metro, thanks primarily to Bedford County. Also remember that the data for the Blacksburg MSA (which covers the whole New River Valley) may be compromised by COVID.

The bottom line: With more than 10 years of net outmigration from Fairfax County now on the books, it’s fair to say that we’ve moved into a new era in Virginia’s population trends. So, what does that mean?

Dwayne Yancey

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