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

“Game of Thrones” went for eight seasons – seven great ones, one maybe not so great.

I’ve managed to squeeze five columns out of the Census Bureau’s latest population estimates for 2021 (an update from the actual 2020 headcount).

  1. Census Bureau says we may be seeing a Zoom-era migration to rural areas, after all.
  2. How many people would it take for each locality in Southwest and Southside to gain population?
  3. Which locality has the biggest problem with people moving out?
  4. The Lynchburg metro area gained population, but the Roanoke Valley metro lost population.
  5. Northern Virginia is losing population. What’s that mean?

No dragons, but lots of demographics. (The Westerosian version would be something like: King’s Landing sees population decline; Dorne sees population boom; population losses slow in The North.) Today I will go for a sixth column. In Season Six of “Game of Thrones,” we saw – spoilers ahead! – Jon Snow come back to life, he and half-sister Sansa recruit support for taking back the North from the Ramseys, and, eventually the Battle of the Bastards. Cersei also blew up the Sept of Baelor and everyone in it; Arya sliced the throat of Walder Frey, Daenerys and Yara struck an alliance, and the Hound returned, mean as ever. This column probably won’t be so exciting but I also pledge to avoid that Season Eight disaster, so there is that.

There are only two ways that a locality’s population can change. Either births outnumber deaths or vice versa, and either more people move in than out, or the other way around. In previous columns, I’ve mostly focused on the latter – how we’re seeing net outmigration from many (but not all) metros and net in-migration in many (but not all) rural areas.

Today I’ll look at the birth rate and the death rate. Since everyone dies eventually (even Jon Snow), the real determining factor is the birth rate – and the U.S. birth rate has been declining for centuries, with only one major interruption.

In 1800, the average American woman gave birth to 7.03 children over the course of her lifetime. By 1850, that had fallen to 5.8 and by 1900 fallen to 3.94. The fertility rate (as these figures are known) hit a low of 2.06 in 1940. After World War II came the so-called baby boom, which saw the fertility rate rise again, hitting a high of 3.58 in 1960 – slightly higher than it had been in 1915. After that, the fertility rate started falling again, slipping below the so-called “replacement rate” of 2.1 in 1972. It’s been below that ever since. In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the fertility rate fell to a new low of 1.6. Whatever the wiggles and jiggles, the big picture is the same: Our birth rates have been under the replacement rate for four decades now. That means the only reason the United States is seeing population growth is through immigration. Shut off immigration and our population would decline, with all the economic repercussions that would bring. (Just look at the economic conditions in parts of the country that are losing population, such as Appalachia, to see what that entails.) There are legitimate debates to be had in any community over how much population growth it can and should handle, but no one argues that losing population is a good thing. Demographically speaking, we need a younger population because a younger population effectively supports an older one – a working-age population pays taxes that supports the various government benefits that an older population draws on. If that gets out of balance, then the government either can’t afford things like Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid or has to tax those workers far more than they want to be taxed.

I’ll deal more with that in a future column – one not based on the census projections, so consider that more of a spinoff like the upcoming “House of the Dragon.” For now, let’s dig into those birth rates and death rates here in Virginia. Earlier I listed the localities in this part of Virginia where births outnumber deaths. There were just five with a net gain of births over deaths: Appomattox County (4 more births than deaths), Lexington (45), Lynchburg (178), Radford (7) and Roanoke (34). Every place else saw deaths outnumber births.

Today let’s put all that in a statewide context.

First, here are all the localities in Virginia that saw births outnumber deaths. Some of these localities still lost population because more people moved out than in; some saw more people move in than out. We’re just looking at births versus deaths, though. These are the net gains:

  1. Fairfax County 5,721
  2. Prince William County 3,483
  3. Loudoun County 2,608
  4. Alexandria 1,290
  5. Arlington County 1,234
  6. Virginia Beach 992
  7. Norfolk 801
  8. Newport News 742
  9. Stafford County 663
  10. Chesterfield County 461
  11. Richmond 455
  12. Manassas 397
  13. Chesapeake 384
  14. Fairfax (city) 339
  15. Spotsylvania County 299
  16. Charlottesville 264
  17. Harrisonburg 251
  18. Portsmouth 211
  19. Lynchburg 178
  20. Henrico County 132
  21. Suffolk 101
  22. Petersburg 90
  23. King George County 74
  24. Fredericksburg 70
  25. Falls Church 55
  26. Winchester 51
  27. Hampton 47
  28. Lexington 45
  29. Franklin (city) 41
  30. Roanoke 34
  31. Colonial Heights 28
  32. Greene County 13
  33. Culpeper County 7
  34. Radford 7
  35. Hopewell 5
  36. Appomattox County 4

Some takeaways from this list: The state’s baby boom is distinctly weighted toward Northern Virginia; the top five births-over-deaths localities are all there. I reported earlier that Fairfax County is losing population – because so many people are moving out that they outnumber both the people moving in, and this surplus of births over deaths. In rural Virginia, we’re accustomed to seeing localities forced to close schools as population declines – Fairfax County, though, may be in the unusual position of having to build more schools even as its population declines (if those out-migration trends continue, of course, which is by no means guaranteed). That will make for some interesting politics.

Even though it’s only 19th on the state list, we get a better sense of how Lynchburg is the baby boom center for this part of the state.

Now let’s look at the opposite side of the ledger: Which localities have the biggest imbalance of deaths over births? Here’s the statewide tally:

  1. Roanoke County 505
  2. Henry County 500
  3. Augusta County 482
  4. Washington County 447
  5. Bedford County 430
  6. Tazewell County 427
  7. Pittsylvania County 429
  8. Tazewell County 427
  9. Danville 368
  10. Smyth County 335

Yes, Roanoke County is, effectively, the state’s death capital, not a happy distinction but an inevitable demographic one. The county’s suburbs are aging out – and dying out. Roanoke County’s imperative needs to be to attract younger residents who won’t die so soon – and who might reproduce. That’s really the demographic imperative for all the localities on this list. It’s probably impossible for a locality to do anything to increase its birth rate – we’ve seen nations such as Russia try and fail. The birth rate is subject to global forces far beyond the power of any local government. Through most of our nation’s history – and certainly since the post-war baby boom – we’ve seen each succeeding generation have fewer children than the one before it. No county board of supervisors can change that. Nor can they stop mortality. People will die, and an older population will die sooner than a younger one. That means there’s really only one solution: Persuade a younger population to move in.

You’ll also notice that the top 10 locations for more deaths than births are all on this side of the state. Augusta County is part of the Shenandoah Valley so if we drop Augusta out, then nine of the top 10 are in Southwest and Southside. Once again, we see how the big challenge for those regions needs to be attracting new residents. They’re starting to do a good job, according to the census estimates, but they need more to balance out all these deaths.

Just to get an even broader perspective, let’s look at the next 20 localities where deaths outnumber births.

  1. Franklin County 311
  2. Mecklenburg County 296
  3. Hanover County 271
  4. Wise County 255
  5. Pulaski County 250
  6. Botetourt County 249
  7. Scott County 249
  8. Carroll County 243
  9. Accomack County 242
  10. Halifax County 238
  11. Buchanan County 228
  12. Patrick County 221
  13. Campbell County 220
  14. Dinwiddie County 213
  15. Lee County 210
  16. Wythe County 197
  17. Rockbridge County 175
  18. Russell County 173
  19. Lancaster County 171
  20. Shenandoah County 168
  21. Alleghany County 164
  22. Amherst County 158
  23. Northumberland County 154
  24. Dickenson County 152
  25. Grayson County 133
  26. Isle of Wight County 132
  27. Giles County 125
  28. James City County 124
  29. Louisa County 113
  30. Montgomery County 110

Same thing as before: Eight of the second 10 localities are in Southwest and Southside. Of the whole Top 40 localities, 31 are in Southwest and Southside – 32 if you count Isle of Wight as part of Southside. If this doesn’t make the case for what one of the top policy initiatives in this part of the state should be, then I don’t know what does.

On “Game of Thrones,” one of the popular sayings was “Valar morghulis” – High Valyrian for “all men must die.” What no one in that world seemed to have an answer for was population decline – in the books and the show we often hear about places that have lost their former glory but never really hear about any boomtowns. The question is whether we here in the real world have an answer. Otherwise “valar morghulis” may as well be the official motto for a lot of our communities.

Dwayne Yancey

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