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The past two days I’ve been rooting like a wild pig through some migration data released by the Internal Revenue Service. This data is often considered more reliable than Census Bureau estimates because it’s based on where people file their income taxes from. That means the ever-helpful and all-knowing data analysts at the IRS can tell us which localities have more people moving in and which ones have more people moving out.
You’ll recall that the data for 2020 – the latest available – is somewhat of a surprise: It shows most of the localities in the urban crescent losing people and most of rural Virginia gaining people. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean those urban crescent localities are losing population – births generally outnumber deaths there, and sometimes might outnumber out-migration, as well. Or not. The Census Bureau estimates earlier this year showed that, with falling birth rates, Northern Virginia is now starting to lose population overall. This IRS data, being more reliable, would seem to confirm that. This is a major demographic shift that should set off alarm bells across the state: Northern Virginia is the economic engine that fills most of the state coffers. If it’s starting to lose population, that has unhappy implications even for Southwest and Southside, because those state coffers subsidize most of our school systems.
In that first column, I touched on where the people who are leaving Northern Virginia are moving to – mostly out of state. The same trend holds for Virginia Beach, too. That’s important because it suggests Virginia is losing its competitive edge. Today I’ll look at the localities in our part of the state. Most are seeing more people move in than out but the two biggest cities – Roanoke and Lynchburg – are seeing more people move out than move in, so, in the spirit of classic journalism, let’s look at the bad news before we get to the good news.
Before we get to the numbers, here’s a point worth stressing: Virtually every city in Virginia has been seeing more people move out than move in – not just in 2020 but for many years before then. That’s just how modern cities seem to work. Some of that should be completely expected. Imagine a young couple who gets married. Their first apartment is in the city because that’s either all they can afford or they like city living. Then they do better economically, maybe have a kid or two, and decide they want a bigger place and wind up out in the suburbs – so where two people moved in, three or four move out. That’s not anybody’s fault. That’s just life. Indeed, the main cities in Virginia that are seeing more people move in than move out are cities that are essentially big suburbs – Chesapeake and Suffolk are the main examples. (Some notable exceptions: Bristol saw net in-migration in 2020. So did Covington.) When cities have gained population, it’s usually because births outnumber deaths and whatever net loss of out-migration there may be. That’s certainly the case with Lynchburg, which gained population at a 4.55% clip in the last census. Furthermore, those Census Bureau estimates earlier this year continued to show Lynchburg gaining population.
So no one should get alarmed when I tell you that the IRS data shows that the Hill City has had a net loss of people through out-migration for 12 straight years. However, you might want to take notice when the IRS says that in 2020 Lynchburg had a net loss of -1,325, higher than any previous year on record. (The year before was -504; the worst year was 2016 with -1,081.) You might also want to take notice when the IRS says that’s more people (in raw numbers) moving out than in any other locality west of Richmond.
The question isn’t why Lynchburg is posting net out-migration – that’s to be expected – but why it has suddenly spiked and why it’s bigger than any other place west of Richmond, even though Lynchburg isn’t the biggest locality west of Richmond. Something seems out of whack. Is it just a one-time thing or some deeper trend? And is this possibly related to Lynchburg having the biggest surplus of births over deaths of any locality on this side of the state? If couples with kids are more likely to move to the suburbs, then Lynchburg’s fecundity might accelerate that out-migration. (Census Bureau estimates put Lynchburg recording 178 more births than deaths in the most recent year; Lexington was second at 45).
So let’s look more closely at Lynchburg’s out-migration numbers: In 2020, the IRS says that 4,705 people moved into Lynchburg and 6,030 moved out.
Of those people moving in, 3,019 came from elsewhere in Virginia. The three biggest contributors: 963 people from Campbell County, 639 from Bedford County, 382 from Amherst County. No other place came close. While 1,686 came from out of state, they were from all over – the single biggest out-of-state source was Raleigh, with 32 people.
Now, how about those people who moved out? They also mostly went to neighboring localities: 1,320 to Campbell County, 1,024 to Bedford County, 519 to Amherst County. 174 to Appomattox County. We may often think we’re losing people to bigger cities, and we do, but the numbers here don’t seem particularly shocking to me. Lynchburg lost 158 to the Richmond area but also lost more people to Pittsylvania County (73) and Roanoke (71) than to Greensboro (59), Raleigh (45), Charlotte (45) or Fairfax County (43).
When you look at this on a net basis, Lynchburg’s outflows don’t look alarming, either. The biggest gaps are with Richmond, Greensboro and Charlotte. Lynchburg imported 115 people from the Richmond area and lost 158, so that’s a net loss of 43. Lynchburg imported fewer than 10 people from Greensboro (the IRS suppresses data with less than 10 respondents) and exported 59, so a net loss of at least 50. It imported fewer than 10 from Charlotte and exported 45, so a net loss of at least 36. Those are losses, to be sure, but the numbers seem relatively small. By contrast, Lynchburg is on the plus side in its population trade with Fairfax County – 55 people moved from Fairfax to Lynchburg while 43 moved from Lynchburg to Fairfax, so a net gain of 12. For those who are curious, Lynchburg brought 60 people from Roanoke and lost 71 – so a net loss of 11.
There’s not a big exodus fro Lynchburg to far-flung places; it’s mostly people moving out of Lynchburg for nearby communities. Suburban flight – or exurban flight in the case of the places here – is hardly a new trend. That’s where Lynchburg is losing people – a net loss of -357 to Campbell, -385 to Bedford, -137 to Amherst County, -96 to Appomattox.
The catch is that Lynchburg’s out-migration accelerated in 2020. The number of people moving into the city has stayed pretty consistent but the number moving out has increased – from 5,308 in 2019 to 6,030 in 2020. In 2009, Lynchburg saw more people move in than out – 4,264 in and 4,241 out. Of course, that was a recession year – people were tending to stay put. The economy is better now, so people are more able to move – and they are, so instead of that more or less even swap in 2009 we’re now seeing a bigger imbalance with those 4,705 people moving into Lynchburg and 6,030 moving out. Maybe there was a lot of pent-up demand that’s now being acted on?
Likewise, Lynchburg is importing people whose average adjusted gross income is $49,739 and exporting those whose average income is $69,409. Again, that makes sense in several ways. First, Lynchburg is Virginia’s youngest major city and income often tracks with age. Second, as people do better economically, they might move out of the city to buy a bigger, more expensive house in the country. So I don’t think we should be overly concerned when we see cities losing people who make more money than people who move in – but cities probably do want to narrow that gap, right? Each person leaving Lynchburg represents a net loss of about $20,000 in spending power, which does seem a rather large difference, especially when compared to what we see from other places – and compared to what we’ve seen in Lynchburg in the past. Maybe that money will still get spent in Lynchburg but in terms of residents, Lynchburg is not only losing people, it’s getting poorer in the process. This trend is relatively new. For the past dozen or so years, the income of those moving in and the income of those moving out was about the same. As recently as 2015, for instance, those moving in averaged $43,967 and those moving out averaged $43,481. The gap since then has been in about the $3,000 range – on the outbound side – but then suddenly blew up to nearly $20,000 in 2020. Why? In the words of that great economic analyst Bob Dylan, “something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” (By the way, it wasn’t the pandemic; these figures reflect the tax returns people filed in 2020 – presumably before April 15 – for the tax year 2019.)
Bottom line: Why has the number of people moving out of Lynchburg suddenly changed? And why are those leaving suddenly more affluent? Are these one-time anomalies or the start of a new trend? And yet, despite all that, the Census Bureau population estimates still show Lynchburg gaining population; the IRS data simply gives us a way to look at the current swirling beneath the surface.
Now let’s tool down U.S. 460 to see what’s happening in Roanoke.
In 2020, the IRS says 6,243 people moved in and 7,335 moved out. Of those moving in, most came from elsewhere in Virginia – 4,268. Most of those moving out also stayed in-state – 5,321.
As with Lynchburg, we see most of the movement back and forth with nearby localities. The biggest population contributors were Roanoke County (1,794), Salem (444), Botetourt County (317), Franklin County (277), Bedford County (274) and Montgomery County (147).
The same places were also the biggest places people were moving out of Roanoke into: Roanoke County (2,346), Salem (606), Botetourt County (428), Bedford County (418), Franklin County (366) and Montgomery County (142).
On a net basis, Roanoke picked up five people on its interchange with Montgomery County, but lost 552 to Roanoke County, 162 to Salem, 144 to Bedford County, 111 to Botetourt County, and 89 to Franklin County. These were far more significant magnets than anywhere else. Roanoke lost at least 47 (and maybe 56 – a data suppression issue) to the Richmond area, 34 to Charlotte. But it saw a net gain of 24 from Greensboro and at least 21 from Raleigh. This seems significant because it undermines some long-held views in the Star City: Roanoke isn’t losing that many people to Charlotte, and it’s actually gaining people from other North Carolina cities. It’s not losing people to Northern Virginia, either. It’s got a net balance of 29 people moving in from Fairfax County. Much like Lynchburg, Roanoke’s problem isn’t some distant black hole of a city drawing away its people, it’s neighboring localities.
Again, much of that is simply the natural progression of life I described earlier: people starting adulthood in the city, then moving out as they do better economically or children come along. If we accept all these things as immutable forces, then Roanoke’s challenge is the same as Lynchburg’s – to get more people to move into the city. If that’s the goal, it’s not being met. In some years in the past, more people moved into Roanoke – 2017 saw 8,204 people move in – although the 2020 imports was about in line with most years. What’s changed is the number of people moving out has accelerated – from 6,509 in 2019 to 7,335 in 2020. Over the past 13 years, only twice has there been a year where more people moved out of the city.
That means Roanoke and Lynchburg are seeing the same trend, so none of this is unique to either city. That’s why I’d caution people in either city from blaming their respective city council – both localities are subject to larger economic forces and social trends than what their councils can set in motion. It’s not as if there’s some unique policy in each city that is causing this. That said, there might be unique policies that could help address the situation. There are council elections in both cities this fall. I’ll be curious if this becomes an issue in either place.
Roanoke is different from Lynchburg in one respect. Lynchburg has seen a big income imbalance between those moving in and those moving out. Roanoke has not. Those moving into Roanoke have averaged $46,184 and those moving out $48,933 – quite different from the nearly $20,000 gap Lynchburg saw in 2020. That makes me wonder anew if Lynchburg’s 2020 gap is some anomaly.
Bottom line: Should Roanoke just accept all this as normal or make a bigger push to attract new residents? If so, how and where? Occasional proposals for new development often spur complaints from neighbors – the city council voted down one proposal for 69 apartments and townhomes on Brandon Avenue by a 4-3 vote last year after neighbors voiced traffic concerns. The proposed development of the Evans Spring property by Interstate 581 always stirs controversy. If Roanoke wants more residents, it has to put them somewhere, though. So where?
Like other cities, it’s also seeing net out-migration but the important thing is that its outflows are slowing down – quite a contrast from Roanoke and Lynchburg. In 2020, it saw net out-migration of just -99, the smallest figure since 2012. Some years in between the net outflows had been as high as -648. Danville ought to feel good about these numbers. (For what it’s worth, the 2021 census estimates show Danville starting to register net in-migration. That’s a different set of data than what we’re working with here but does suggest this trend is continuing.)
Martinsville is seeing just the opposite problem. Like Lynchburg and Roanoke, and unlike Danville, it’s seeing net out-migration increase. In 2020, the city saw net out-migration of -141 – that’s more than any year since 2012. Maybe Martinsville is simply feeling the same trends as Lynchburg and Roanoke (and other places) – but all this just makes Danville’s slowing out-migration look better.
Why aren’t more people from Northern Virginia moving downstate?
Now we get to what might be the most interesting part of all. The net out-migration patterns in Lynchburg and Roanoke – and Danville and Martinsville – are very different from the net out-migration we see in Northern Virginia. Fairfax County, like the localities downstate, has a lot of migration back and forth with neighboring localities – but it also has a lot with other high-powered metros around the country. When Lynchburg and Roanoke interact with cities out of state, it’s mostly ones in North Carolina. It’s as if we’re on different planets. (Danville and Martinsville also lose people to North Carolina but they’re so close to the border, that’s to be expected.)
Even before the pandemic, we were starting to see an uptick of people moving into rural areas (more on that tomorrow). The first Census Bureau estimates since the pandemic suggest that’s continuing. The thing I notice is how little interplay we have between the state’s largest metro area (Northern Virginia) and downstate. As noted above, when people do move between the two, they tend to move out of Fairfax and into either Lynchburg or Roanoke. There just aren’t many of them. Lynchburg saw 55 people move in from Fairfax County, Roanoke saw 68 move in from Fairfax County. Now for the context: Lynchburg saw 60 people move in from Roanoke; Roanoke saw 71 move in from Lynchburg. Let’s put that another way: More people move from Roanoke to Lynchburg than move from Fairfax County to Lynchburg; more people move from Lynchburg to Roanoke than move from Fairfax County.
Given the huge population outflows from Fairfax County – 88,778 moved out in 2020 – you’d think more would be choosing our part of the state. They’re not. We’re not seeing big numbers from Fairfax go to surrounding communities, either. In Botetourt and Campbell counties, the number of Fairfax refugees was less than 10. In Roanoke County, just 60 of the 6,765 people moving in were from Fairfax. Even with Smith Mountain Lake, Bedford County drew just 58, about the same as Lynchburg, and slightly fewer than Roanoke. Danville and Martinsville have so few imports from Fairfax County they don’t even show up on the IRS data (meaning they must be fewer than 10).
This seems like an opportunity. If someone in Fairfax has a job opportunity in Seattle, we can’t compete with that. But if they just want to get out of gridlock on the beltway, maybe we just need to do a better job acquainting them with our part of Virginia?
Tomorrow I’ll look at all the rural areas gaining population to see where all those people are coming from (since it sure doesn’t seem to be Northern Virginia).