This map shows which localities are gaining population through net in-migration or losing it through net out-migration. It does not show overall changes in population. A county may gain population through net in-migration but still lose population overall through deaths outnumbering births (and net in-migration). Likewise, a locality losing population through net out-migration might still gain population through births outnumberrng deaths (and net out-mgration). Most localities in Virginia are seeing more people move in than move out. The most notable exceptions are in Northern Virginia, the Richmond are and Hampton Roads. Migration data from IRS for 2020. Map by Robert Lunsford.

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On Monday, I looked at some Internal Revenue Service migration data that shows how people are moving out of Northern Virginia.

On Tuesday, I wrote about how that same data shows that more people are moving into most rural counties than are moving out.

On Wednesday, I focused on the two biggest cities in this part of the state – Lynchburg and Roanoke – and how they’re seeing net out-migration (and where those people are moving to).

Today, I’ll deal with those counties in Southwest and Southside that are seeing net in-migration and try to answer the question: Where are all those people coming from?

The answer to that is sometimes simpler than it seems. People often don’t move far, so generally, the answer to that question is “the next county over.” That’s an unsatisfying answer, though, because, obviously, not everybody can come from “the next county over” or we wouldn’t be seeing any net in-migration. We have to have some people coming from somewhere else.

For the sake of brevity – something I honor more in the breach than the observance most days, I realize – I won’t deal with every locality in Southwest and Southside. If you’re really interested in some locality I don’t mention, you can look up the data here. Instead, I’ll try to present a representative sample.

Roanoke County

Roanoke County is the third-largest locality in this part of the state but the biggest one that boasts net in-migration. Both Roanoke and Montgomery County post net out-migration. I dealt with Roanoke yesterday; net out-migration is pretty much what we expect from a city. And the data in Montgomery County is probably skewed by the presence of a major university that exports a lot of graduates every year. Demographer Hamilton Lombard at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service advises extreme caution when dealing with data from college towns. So Roanoke County it is.

In 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, Roanoke County had 6,765 people move in and 6,574 move out – a net gain of 191. Of those newcomers, 2,346 – 34.6% – came from Roanoke. Once you add up all the people coming from nearby localities – Bedford County, Botetourt County, Floyd County, Franklin County, Montgomery County, Radford, Salem – you come to 4,125 people. So 60.9% of Roanoke County’s newcomers are locals, one way or another. That means the others aren’t. So where are they coming from?

At the risk of sounding like a “bait and switch,” I can’t really tell you. At least not very much. That’s because the IRS, in the interest of privacy, suppresses data when the numbers are less than 10 so people can’t be identified. What I can tell you is that of those 6,765 people moving in, 4,964 came from Virginia. Since we just showed that 4,125 came from neighboring localities, that means 839 came from other parts of Virginia. Of those, all we know is that 60 came from Fairfax County and 43 came from Henry County. The other 736 came from the rest of Virginia but apparently no other locality supplied10 or more, because the IRS suppresses places with fewer than 10 tax returns.

We can still tell something from the absence of information: Roanoke County obviously isn’t seeing a lot of migration from Northern Virginia (outside Fairfax County), the Richmond area or Hampton Roads, otherwise those localities would be showing up. Whatever migration is happening is more dispersed. I expressed surprise Monday at how many people are moving out of Fairfax County (88,778 in 2020) and surprise yesterday at how few of those are moving to Lynchburg or Roanoke. Same here. When people move out of Fairfax County, it’s mostly to high-powered metros elsewhere, not Southwest or Southside. That seems a missed opportunity. (For what it’s worth, Roanoke County has a trade surplus with Fairfax County: 37 people moved from here to there, 60 moved from there to here.)

Now let’s look at another set of people moving into Roanoke County: 1,801 people moved from out of state – 26.6% of the county’s newcomers.

Of those 1,801 here’s where they came from, region-wise:

South: 1,029

West: 303

Northeast: 277

Midwest: 192

Am I the only one surprised at how low the Northeast ranks? And how high the West scores?

The same IRS rules apply: We can’t say which localities in the South or anywhere else people are coming from, because it’s fewer than 10 from each locality.

One final tidbit about the people moving into and out of Roanoke County. Those moving in make less than those moving out. The average adjusted gross income of newcomers was $59,131; for those moving out it was $62,472. This doesn’t seem too surprising if you think of it this way: Let’s assume those people moving in from the city started adult life in a city apartment, but now they’re doing better economically and can afford to buy a suburban house. And the odds are that those who are moving out of Roanoke County are moving because they’ve found better jobs elsewhere – two big destinations are Charlotte and Raleigh – or because they’re retiring. Another big outbound destination is Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. None of that seems very alarming to me.

Franklin County

If you want a county with a very different migration profile, check out Franklin County. In Roanoke County, 26.6% of the newcomers are coming from out of state. In Franklin County – home to part of Smith Mountain Lake – the figure is 32%. The stereotype of the typical lake resident being some retiree from New York or New Jersey doesn’t quite hold.

Franklin County’s out-of-state newcomers numbered 910 in 2020. Of those:

South: 523

Northeast: 199

West: 125

Midwest: 63

In fact, Franklin County saw more people move out of the county to Pennsylvania than the other way around – so there’s one Northeast state that isn’t contributing to Franklin’s net in-migration.

As with other localities, most of its in-state migration comes from neighboring localities. More people from Botetourt County (75) than from Fairfax County (73) moved to Franklin County.

The big difference is on the income side. Those moving into Franklin averaged $101,861; those moving out averaged $58,373. This data doesn’t show why people move so I’ll leap into some speculation: I suspect what we’re seeing is people moving out of Franklin County to make a living elsewhere, and people moving into Franklin County to retire.

Bedford County

We see much the same thing on the Bedford County side: The people moving in averaged $102,485; those moving out averaged $64,708. These are some of the biggest imbalances in the state.

In Bedford, 29.3% of the newcomers are coming from out of state, slightly below Franklin’s rate. Once again, the stereotype of people moving from the Northeast doesn’t hold. The out-of-staters come from:

South: 895

Northeast: 301

West: 235

Midwest: 203

The main thing that distinguishes Bedford is that here we are seeing more migration from Northern Virginia: 58 from Fairfax County, 53 from Prince William County.

Patrick County

Bedford and Franklin don’t have the highest percentage of out-of-state newcomers, though. Patrick County has 53.1% of its newcomers coming from out of state. Much of that is because it borders North Carolina. About a quarter of the 318 out-of-staters moving into Patrick County in 2020 came from Surry County, North Carolina – so they’re both local (a neighboring county) and out-of-state, depending on how you want to count them. It’s not as if we’re seeing some big migration from, say, Syracuse to Stuart. Of those 318 out-of-staters, 233 came from the South.

Carroll County

Here’s another border county that, not surprisingly, draws a lot from out of state – 45.9% of its newcomers come from out of state. Nearly 1 of every 5 newcomers is simply moving across the border from Surry County, North Carolina. Once again, we see the South as a big source of migration, the Northeast much further down:

South: 346

West: 64

Northeast: 47

Midwest: 37

Grayson County

Grayson, also on the border, sees similar trends – 36.7% of its newcomers come from out of state, primarily the South. However, because some of the numbers are so small, the data is suppressed, so we can only guess where they’re from.

Lee County

One more specific example before we get to some takeaways. Lee County stands out not simply because it’s the westernmost part of the state, but because it’s in coal country and we all have the impression that people are moving out of coal country. Except they’re not. To be sure, Buchanan County and Wise County still are seeing more people moving out than moving in. But other localities in the coalfields aren’t. In the 2020 census, Lee County saw the second biggest drop in population of any county in the state – -13.34%, behind only Buchanan County at -15.5%. Yet that same year Lee County broke a losing streak and saw more people move in than move out. 

So who’s moving in? This is partly a statistical trick of geography but 63.6% of Lee County’s newcomers are from out of state. (By contrast, 61% of the newcomers in Arlington County are from out of state.) We don’t know exactly where because of data suppression, but we know that Lee’s newcomers are primarily from the South – 336 out of 479 out-of-state newcomers in 2020. The odds are Kentucky and Tennessee simply because they’re so close, but we don’t know that for a fact. We just know that 753 moved in and 625 moved out – and that seems a pretty significant shift.

This is a statistic that the coal counties – well, except for Buchanan and Wise – should be shouting from the mountaintops: More people are moving in than moving out. Let’s say that again louder for the people in the back: In most of the coal counties, more people are moving in than moving out. They’re still losing population because deaths outnumber births, but there’s little they can do about that. They are, though, starting to fix their demographic imbalances through net in-migration. If a lot of these newcomers are young adults – the IRS data doesn’t say – then maybe nature will take its course and that deaths over births ratio will start to come down. Still, this is good news and they shouldn’t be shy about trumpeting it.


So what are the takeaways here?

  1. Not many people are moving here from Northern Virginia. Northern Virginia, as we saw on day one, is losing people – huge numbers of people. But only a very small number of those people are moving to Southwest and Southside.
  2. Not many people are moving here from Richmond or Hampton Roads, either. The Richmond area sometimes shows up as a small contributor but Hampton Roads never does. That means …
  3. When our localities show net in-migration, it’s primarily from neighboring localities – or from out of state. The former is to be expected and, big picture-wise, doesn’t really help us. If we as a region want more people moving in (and we ought to, especially with our deaths-over-births ratio, because otherwise a shrinking labor pool will depress economic growth), then either a) we need to figure out how to get more people moving out of the urban crescent, since they’re obviously not doing that now, or b) we should play to our strength and emphasize getting even more people to move from out of state because that’s what’s really driving a lot of in-migration.
  4. The stereotype of the Northeastern retiree is overrated. There are certainly some, but in locality after locality, the biggest number of out-of-state newcomers is from somewhere else in the South. We don’t always know where for privacy reasons, but Southwest and Southside are primarily drawing newcomers from the South, not the North. Even in Bedford and Franklin counties, on opposite sides of Smith Mountain Lake, most newcomers come with a Southern accent.

So here’s a philosophical question: What does it say when the people moving out of the urban crescent are bypassing us but people from other states are not? Feel free to talk amongst yourselves.

Tomorrow: Why aren’t more people moving from Northern Virginia to Southwest and Southside?

Day 1: More people are moving out of Northern Virginia than moving in

Day 2: Urban crescent sees people moving out; rural Virginia sees people moving in

Day 3: People are moving out of Lynchburg and Roanoke. Where are they going?

Day 4: People are moving into rural Virginia. Where are they coming from?

Day 5: Why aren’t more people moving from Northern Virginia into Southwest or Southside?

Day 6: Some rural areas are seeing a big influx of affluent residents.

Day 7: Four questions (and two questions) about Virginia’s migration trends

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