Which counties gained and lost population in the 2020 Census. Courtesy of Census Bureau.

Take a look at the above. What do you see?

Here’s what I see, although you might have to squint to see it. If you travel south down Interstate 81 in Virginia, every county or city you’ll pass through has gained population over the past decade, according to the 2020 Census – until you hit Radford and cross the New River into Pulaski County.

After that, every county or city lost population.

All right, you’re saying, tell me something I don’t know.

Just be patient, OK? This isn’t a TikTok video.

But look what happens when you cross the state line in Bristol. Once you’re in Tennessee, every I-81 county has gained population. There are a few counties in East Tennessee that have lost population, but they aren’t on the I-81 corridor – and they also haven’t lost nearly as much population as their nearest neighbors on the Virginia side of the line.

So why is this? What is East Tennessee doing that Southwest Virginia isn’t? Is it something in the water? Or Tennessee’s governance and tax policies? Tennessee has no income tax. Could that be it?

Sorry to disappoint all the tax libertarians among us, but it’s definitely not that. Here’s why I can so cavalierly dismiss the lack of income tax as a factor in East Tennessee’s growth: It’s always been this way, long before there ever was such a thing as an income tax. In every census since the very first one in 1790, East Tennessee has gained population in aggregate (although not every county has). In fact, in all but four headcounts, the census has recorded double-digit population growth in East Tennessee. That certainly hasn’t been the case in Southwest Virginia.

Not having an income tax is an interesting policy but there are trade-offs to everything. In Tennessee’s case, that trade-off is the sales tax. The Volunteer State has the highest sales tax in the country, according to the Tax Foundation – a rate of 9.55%. By contrast, Virginia is ranked 41st with an average rate of 5.73% when you factor in state and local sales taxes. Sales taxes are regressive; income taxes are progressive. Feel free to debate the pros and cons amongst yourselves. The hack is to live in Tennessee and shop in Virginia. In any case, whatever has been driving East Tennessee’s popultation growth – and not driving it in Southwest Virginia over the past decade – is a lot bigger than mere tax policy. Of note: North Carolina has a higher sales tax than Virginia (and, like us, it has an income tax), yet we routinely lament that North Carolina is getting the better of us in economic development. Taxes might be important but they are clearly not as big a driver as some politicians might like to have us believe.

So, let’s move on. The T word of interest here today isn’t taxes, it’s Tennessee – to see what we can indirectly learn about ourselves by looking at our reflection across the state line.

Before we get to some of the likely answers, let’s look first at the actual numbers.

So let’s say we start in Roanoke, and we have “Wagon Wheel” – the Old Crow Medicine Show version – blasting out of the speakers …

Walkin’ to the south out of Roanoke

I caught a trucker out of Philly, had a nice long toke

But he’s a-headin’ west from the Cumberland Gap

To Johnson City, Tennessee

OK, none of that makes geographical sense. Nice beat but don’t rely on song lyrics for your cartography. (Hey, this column is all about demography; I’ve got to do something to spice it up.)

So, where were we? Right, we’re headed south on I-81. We’ve passed through some high-growth counties (Frederick County, 16.75% over the past decade, and Rockingham County, 9.75%). We’ve passed through some low-growth counties (Rockbridge County, 1.54%, and Botetourt County, 1.35%) but high-growth or low-growth, they’ve all been on the plus side. Now we’re cruising through Montgomery County – population growth of 5.65% – and things are feeling pretty normal.

But then something happens – it’s as if all these localities coming up next saw a trooper running radar and they hit the population brakes:

Radford: -2.06%

Pulaski County: -3.07%

Wythe County: -3.23%

Smyth County: -7.48%

Washington County: -1.71%

Bristol: -3.45%

But as soon as we cross State Street and see the “Welcome to Tennessee” sign, look what happens:

Sullivan County: 0.9%

Washington County: 8.1%

Greene County: 1.9%

Hamblen County: 3.1%

Jefferson County: 6.4%

Knox County: 10.8%

And even though I-81 terminates in Knoxville, those growth rates continue all the way into Georgia until we get to the other side of Atlanta and start seeing signs for how far it is to Florida. It’s as if there’s a population growth dead zone in Southwest Virginia.

Even for the handful of East Tennessee counties that are losing population, they still look very different from their Virginia neighbors.

In Virginia, Lee County’s population dropped by 13.34% during the past decade. In Tennessee, Claiborne County lost 0.5% and Hancock County lost 2.3%. In Virginia, Scott County’s population dropped by 6.91%, while over the line Hawkins County lost 0.2%.

Is an imaginary line really all that powerful? Or is there something else going on?

Answer: There’s something else going on.

Geography and geology have a lot to do with it, according to the experts I consulted. The short version: East Tennessee has a broader valley so therefore more developable land. It also never had coal mining in any serious way so it therefore hasn’t had to endure the collapse of the coal industry and the population outflows that meant for the coal counties in Southwest Virginia. Our coal counties saw rapid population growth once coal started to be mined; now they’re seeing rapid population declines. Those rapid declines wouldn’t be happening if the counties hadn’t boomed with coal in the first place. (Thought experiment: What would the population of Virginia’s coal counties be if coal had never been discovered? If that figure is lower than what it is now, then that suggests there’s still more painful population loss to come, barring some other economic intervention.) But coal or lack of coal doesn’t explain the population losses along much of the I-81 corridor in Southwest Virginia. They were never coal counties in the first place.

The longer versions go like this.

One of the people I consulted was Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. He writes:

“This is probably quite complicated and would be worth spending a year investigating. But since you ask, I think east Tennessee and Southwest Virginia have quite different histories and geology. East Tennessee was much more densely populated than Southwest Virginia at the time of the Civil War and right up until the coal boom. SW VA boomed in population as coal was exploited but struggled to diversify its economy, as fewer workers were needed to produce coal, the region’s population declined. 

“The Great Valley broadens quite a bit around Bristol, so the lowlands of East Tennessee had a much wealthier agricultural economy than SW VA and never became dependent on mineral extraction, this helped it transition towards a service based economy. East Tennessee generally has higher educational attainment rates, higher income levels and a younger population. The Cumberland mountains, which are only a few counties in East Tennessee, look a good deal more like SW VA socioeconomically. One other economic advantage that East Tennessee has is that it developed its side of the Blue Ridge for tourism a good deal more than Virginia has. Dollywood may be tacky but Sevier County has a higher median household income and lower poverty rate than most of Southwest Virginia. 

“The pattern you identified is also true to a certain extent for Western North Carolina.” 

I also consulted Tim Kuhn, director of the Tennessee State Data Center at the University of Tennessee, which seems to be that state’s equivalent of the Weldon Cooper Center. He says pretty much the same thing, just in a different way: East Tennessee simply has more cities than Southwest Virginia does, he says, and cities are the natural drivers of economic growth and population growth. Knoxville is a regional center with a major university. The Tri-Cities of Kingsport, Bristol and Johnson City includes a smidge of Virginia – the Virginia side of Bristol – but most of the population weight there is on the Tennessee side. Those two metros are also fairly close together – about an hour and a half drive from Knoxville to Kingsport. By contrast, it’s more than two hours from Bristol to Roanoke. Proximity matters, too.

All that adds up to this, Kuhn says: “More people are moving in than moving out and that population increase offsets the natural decrease” – the clinical demographic term for deaths outnumbering births. The Census Bureau shows that on a year-by-year basis, some Southwest Virginia localities actually have more people moving in than moving out, too. That’s a good trend to have, but they still lose population because deaths outnumber both births and the net in-migration. In any case, Tennessee is seeing more people move in than move out, so many more that its localities wind up gaining population even if their deaths outnumber births. Kuhn says it’s significant that most of the people moving into Tennessee are working adults – they’re not retirees. “It’s difficult in the aggregate to understand what attracts people,” he says, but in general, there’s economic growth in those cities and that draws people. Tennessee’s cities are simply a bigger magnet than the smaller communites on the Virginia side of the line, he says.

Kuhn points out that nothing here is unique to Tennessee – or Southwest Virginia. They are simply part of national trends: Metros are growing, rural areas that are far away from those metros are losing population. “The degree to which that happens depends on the state,” he says, but it’s still all the same trend. To that extent, while we’re talking here specifically about Southwest, these lessons are just as applicable to Southside or other rural areas.

That’s both reassuring – it’s not that Southwest Virginia is doing anything wrong – but also depressing – it doesn’t sound like there’s an obvious fix, either. We can’t change our topography. We can’t pull a larger metro any closer. So what can we try to change?

Dwayne Yancey

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