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Something not-so-good has been happening in Virginia for the past nine years and Gov. Glenn Youngkin is the first governor to make a big deal about it.
At the risk of sounding like a Youngkin publicist, I say: It’s about time.
Whether he can do anything about it, that’s a different matter, but they always say the first step toward solving a problem is recognizing you have a problem. And here’s the problem Virginia has had for the past nine years: More people are moving out than moving in. Furthermore, this trend is accelerating in ways that have finally gotten a governor’s attention.
A few weeks ago, Youngkin delivered a speech at Christopher Newport University where he talked about how the state’s programs on worker training need to be reformed. That’s not what caught my eye. What did was this passage: “The stat that I pay the most attention to is how many Virginians move away,” Youngkin said. “And over the last number of years, we’ve seen more Virginians move away than we’ve seen move to Virginia from the other 49 states. Virginians have been voting with their feet.”
The Richmond Times-Dispatch, in its coverage of the speech, called this statistic “obscure,” and maybe it is outside the small circle of demographers and economists who study migration trends (and the nerdy journalists who write about them). But this statistic isn’t exactly a secret, either.
The data comes out every year from the Internal Revenue Service, which tracks where people file their income taxes from and compares that to where they did the year before. (Yes, the government knows where you live.) The result is a pretty detailed picture of how Americans move around. The IRS started doing this in the 1970s and for every year up until 2013, the reports showed that more people were moving into Virginia than were moving out. Then in 2013, something changed – more people moved out than moved in. That net out-migration has continued every year since then.
That doesn’t mean Virginia is losing population. It’s not. Migration in or out is only one part of population change. Births and deaths are the others. In Virginia, births exceed both deaths and the net out-migration – so the state is still gaining population, just more slowly than before. If you think of population totals as the surface of a river, in-migration and out-migration are the currents underwater – and they’re not unimportant ones. Something is happening here and those who govern Virginia might want to understand it. Maybe previous governors have paid attention to these stats, too, but if they did, they didn’t make a big deal out of them the way Youngkin is. He talked about this net out-migration during his campaign (it just didn’t get the same attention as his views on critical race theory) and now he says as governor it’s “the stat I pay the most attention to.”
Let’s pay attention to this, too.
I’ve dealt with these IRS migration reports before, in my recent seven-part series on migration trends. The big takeaways from that: This out-migration is driven primarily by people moving out of Northern Virginia and certain other places in the urban crescent, such as Hampton Roads. Yes, more people are moving out of Northern Virginia than moving in. That statistic alone ought to set off warning bells in the halls of state government. Northern Virginia is the economic engine that drives the state. Some in rural Virginia like to show disdain for Northern Virginia in lots of ways – too much traffic, too many liberals, too many people who aren’t native Virginians – but the reality is that Northern Virginia supplies the tax revenue that subsidizes every rural school system in the state. Whether rural Virginia likes Northern Virginia’s politics or not, it’s in our interest that Northern Virginia do well, too. If more people are moving out of Northern Virginia than moving in, that’s a warning that maybe it’s not doing as well as it should be.
The latest IRS migration data also shows another important trend: More people are now moving into much of rural Virginia than are moving out. That’s kind of a big deal. Mind you, it’s not enough to overcome the big deficit of deaths over births in much of rural Virginia, which tends to be older, often much older than the rest of the state. Still, here’s some good demographic news for rural Virginia for a change.
Anyway, I dealt with all that before. Today, let’s step back and look broadly at the overall stats that the governor is paying attention to. Just who is moving out? Youngkin dealt with some of that in his CNU address: “The largest group that has been moving away have been our 20- to 35-year-olds. And in fact, that is the group that Virginia needs to build our future upon. And so, if we don’t find a way to keep this most aspirational and foundational group of Virginians here, we’re kind of hollowing out a future.”
Youngkin isn’t quite right here but he’s close enough that I’ll give him a pass. The largest group moving out of Virginia is actually those 60-plus – retirees turning into snowbirds. However, the biggest statistical change in recent years has been in the 18-to-29 age cohort, so Youngkin’s basic point is on target: Virginia is losing people and too many of those are young adults. Any of us living in rural areas know all too well what happens when young adults move away. Youngkin is quite right to warn that if these demographic trends continue, Virginia risks “hollowing out a future.”
So let’s dig deeper. (For these stats, I’m indebted to Hamilton Lombard of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper for Public Service, who has crunched both the IRS data and Census Bureau data to help make sense of all this.)
As recently as 2008, Virginia showed net in-migration in every age cohort. In years following, some age cohorts showed net out-migration but overall Virginia still had net in-migration.
The first age cohort to start showing out-migration tendencies was that 60-plus group. Starting in 2010, that group has seen more people move out than move in every year except two – 2011 and 2017. The pace of that out-migration has accelerated, too. From 2006 to 2012, Virginia saw 8,328 more people in the 60-plus age group move out of state than move in. From 2013 to 2019, the deficit was 30,257. Some of this reflects the overall aging of society – these are baby boomers retiring and, in this case, choosing to move out of state, typically to coastal areas in the Southeast from the Outer Banks to Florida. These snowbirds also tend to be more affluent, so Virginia is losing lots of taxable income. It’s hard to know what to do about this. Who am I to tell people they can’t retire to the beach (even if they really ought to be retiring to the lake or the mountain instead)?
Youngkin is more focused on those young adults. Until recently, Virginia had a surplus of young adults moving in over those moving out. For a long time, the only net out-migration Virginia saw was for those over 60. Those 18 to 30 used to be the one group that Virginia could count on moving in. For instance, in 2015, every age cohort except one saw more net out-migration than net in-migration. That one exception was for those 18 to 30. But now even that’s changed. In 2017, for the first time, Virginia saw net out-migration among those 18 to 30. They were back to net in-migration for 2018 but then in 2019, every age cohort saw net out-migration.
If we look over the past decade or so, the 18-to-30 age cohort is still in the plus range but the trend lines aren’t favorable. From 2006 to 2012, Virginia saw 101,817 more people 18 to 30 move in than move out. But from 2013 to 2019, that figure dropped to 68,422. That’s the single biggest numerical change in any of the age cohorts – that’s where Youngkin’s stat above comes from. His phrasing is a bit garbled, if you want to be a stickler on the statistics, but he’s absolutely right to be concerned about the trend line.
Big picture: Virginia has been seeing more people moving out than moving in primarily because retirees are moving out of state, but now we’re seeing the age cohort that’s consistently been most enthusiastic about moving in deciding instead to move out. No wonder the governor is concerned. He wouldn’t be doing his job if he weren’t. Lombard adds even more urgency to the situation: “If you think about the huge number of young military service members Virginia pulls in every year that shift should be alarming,” he tells me. “It means that Virginia lost so many other young adults in 2019 it more than canceled out any gains from attracting young adults in the military.”
We know some other things about the people moving out: Virginia is now exporting more college graduates than it’s importing.
From 2005 (when the data begins) to 2015, Virginia consistently saw more people age 25 and up with college degrees move in than move out. That changed in 2012 – that was the first year we saw more college graduates move out than move in. The years 2013, 2014 and 2015 saw a reversion to the old trend of importing college graduates but 2016 saw another out-migration year. The years 2017 and 2018 were back to in-migration but 2019 and 2020 again saw more college graduates move out than move in. That means in three of the past five years, Virginia lost college graduates. In 2019, the deficit was 113,314 college graduates moving out and 100,590 moving in. The 2020 numbers are likely skewed by the pandemic, but still, 105,801 college graduates moved out while 102,260 moved in.
This is obviously not the direction we want to be going in. Virginia does not want to spend money educating students only to see them leave the state. But that’s effectively the situation we’re in now.
So why is this happening? Why are these young adults leaving? “Voting with their feet,” as the governor puts it. One easy answer is that other states have more and better job opportunities. The whole GO Virginia economic development initiative has been predicated on creating more private sector jobs in Virginia – federal budget sequestration has slowed growth in government jobs in Northern Virginia and military jobs in Hampton Roads. Those might be good things depending on your political tastes but both have had unfortunate economic consequences for Virginia.
However, the jobs aspect is an insufficient answer. Virginia doesn’t lack for jobs. Youngkin likes to point out that Virginia has 300,000 jobs going unfilled – that’s another statistic driving his workforce training reforms. Now it’s entirely possible that there’s a mismatch between what people are trained for and what those jobs require. On the other hand, if that’s the case, then all those college graduates moving out of Virginia couldn’t find jobs here – but did somewhere else, which ought to raise its own set of questions.
There is another factor to be considered, though: high housing prices in Northern Virginia. Lombard shares this telling detail: “In Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina, one of the top destinations for Northern Virginians, the median home price was half that of Fairfax County’s in 2019 but its average salary for new hires was only a third lower. Wake County’s housing prices are lower in large part due to its ample supply of new homes, and in 2021 Wake County built more homes than all of Northern Virginia managed – and close to half the number of homes all of Virginia built in that year.”
In other words, high housing prices in Northern Virginia are driving people out of state. Virginia’s net out-migration is almost exclusively a Northern Virginia-driven problem. In 2020, Virginia saw a net out-migration of -7,561. Fairfax County alone accounted for -14,231. If it weren’t for Northern Virginia, Virginia would be seeing net in-migration. Some individual localities have net out-migration figures (you can see those on the map below) but Northern Virginia is what turns Virginia from a migration winner into a migration loser. Can the state do anything to bring down those high housing prices in Northern Virginia? If you’re a homeowner in Northern Virginia, you sure don’t want that – you don’t want your most important asset to be devalued. Still, that’s the reality: Northern Virginia’s economic success is pricing people out – and while it’s pricing some of those out to outlying counties, it’s pricing a lot of others out of the state altogether.
Virginians, whatever their political beliefs, ought to be glad that Youngkin is focused on this net out-migration of Virginia talent, but it’s also likely far more complicated than simply reforming the state’s worker training programs. Yes, we absolutely need to do a better job of training people for those 300,000 jobs that do exist. But if we can’t lower high housing prices in Northern Virginia, then it would help if those workers going elsewhere had more options in Virginia. The top out-of-state destinations of those leaving Fairfax County are presently the D.C suburbs of Maryland, the District of Columbia, San Diego, Los Angeles, Raleigh and Seattle, in that order. All of those, it should be noted, are top metros for technology jobs. This is another reason why it’s in the state’s interest to help foster the growth of technology hubs throughout Virginia, and not just in Northern Virginia.