The Henry County historical marker. Courtesy of Marmaduke Percy.

There are lots of ways to tell a story.

We can use words, of course. Or we can paint a picture, which we’re told is worth 1,000 of them.

Or we can use numbers.

Regular readers know that I’m something of a data nerd. My high school math teacher, the late Fred Pence at Montevideo High School in Rockingham County, would have been amazed at my newfound love for math, but some lessons take a while to learn. In particular, I’ve come to be fascinated by the mathematics of demography. To my astonishment, so are many of you. My demographic-focused columns are among the best-read ones, so, in the words of the great philosopher Ray Davies of The Kinks, “give the people what they want.” In all seriousness, data has become my preferred way to tell a story, especially when it comes to describing how parts of Virginia are changing. We can argue over whether a certain political action is good or bad, but there’s no denying that two plus two is still four.

The Harvest Foundation in Martinsville recently asked me to speak to a summit of community leaders to lay out some of the key data points about population trends in Martinsville and Henry County. Disclosure: The Harvest Foundation is one of our donors and has awarded us a grant to fund our yet-to-be-hired reporter for Martinsville, but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy. The foundation wanted to hear those numbers but didn’t necessarily know what they were – beyond the ones we all know about how the region’s population is declining. I didn’t know them, either. That speaking invite forced me to do some research on just what those data points are. I shared these last week at the foundation’s “Level Up” summit; today I’ll share them with you.

As I told my listeners, many of these numbers aren’t happy ones – although they do get happier at the end. And these numbers don’t capture one thing I heard loud and clear in that summit: excitement. Yes, there was a lot of genuine excitement in that room. A nonprofit has been formed to promote the idea of people moving to Martinsville. We saw some fascinating examples of redevelopment – old schools that have been or are being converted to living spaces. Yes, there are some challenges ahead. One big thing I heard was the need to rejuvenate downtown Martinsville – Uptown Martinsville in local language. But there are signs that’s already starting to happen. After the conference, I spent some time walking around and found some places that other communities would be envious of: a “maker space” for local artists, a cool coffee shop and a pinball arcade. (Pinball is a retro game that’s making a comeback.) Yes, Martinsville is behind the curve in getting people to live downtown – or Uptown – but it’s not starting from zero, either. I may have laid out some depressing numbers about where Martinsville has been (journalists are like that), but later speakers laid out a more inspiring vision for what Martinsville could be.

I’ll have more to say about all that in tomorrow’s column. For now, let’s deal with the numbers: The demographic background on Martinsville and Henry County is well-known, perhaps too well-known. At one time Martinsville was one of the economic – and ultimately political – powerhouses of the state. In the 1940s and 1980s, Martinsville and Henry County produced speakers of the House; in the 1950s, it produced a governor. Those days, of course, are long gone. Martinsville’s economy was based on textiles and furniture and they were reliable employers until they weren’t. Beth Macy’s book “Factory Man” tells the story of how they collapsed. (Another disclosure: Beth is a member of our journalism advisory committee, but committee members have no say in news decisions.) In 2000, Martinsville commanded statewide attention when the collapse of the textile industry produced calls for the state to raise unemployment benefits. Nine busloads of former factory workers from Martinsville went to Richmond to plead their case. Then-Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Henry County (this was back in the days when rural areas still elected Democrats), described how department stores in Martinsville were busy that Christmas – with people returning Christmas gifts they’d bought in October. “It was heartbreaking,” he said, “to see people returning presents in return for money so they could buy groceries.” The state relief plan never became law and all this is now painful history, two decades past.

It’s necessary background, though, to put in context the surprising numbers I’m about to present.

Population changes by county between 2010 and 2020. Map courtesy of Virginia Public Access Project.

Martinsville and Henry County, like most of Southwest and Southside, have been losing population for decades. Martinsville’s population peaked in 1970 at 19,653; it’s now down to 13,485 in the latest census, a drop of 6,168 people. On a percentage basis, Martinsville is now 68.6% of what it once was.

Henry County saw its population peak later, in 1980 at 57,654. Now it’s down to 50,948, a drop of 6,706 people. That puts it at 88.3% of its former self, not as severe a drop as Martinsville saw, but still a drop.

I realize I’m not winning any friends yet at the chamber of commerce, but stick with me.

Like much of rural Virginia, Henry County is getting much older

Two more sets of discouraging data and things will get better, I promise. The 2021 census estimates show Martinsville and Henry County still losing population – with Henry County dropping from 50,948 to 50,000 and Martinsville slipping from 13,485 to 13,436.

Not only have these localities been losing population, they’ve also been getting older.

Virginia counties and cities by median age in 1980. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.

In 1980, Virginia’s median age was 30.9. Back then, Henry County’s median age was 30.5, so it was slightly younger than the state median. (Martinsville was older than the state median.)

Now Virginia’s median age iss up to 38.8 (as a nation, we’ve all aged). Henry County’s median now is 47.8, so it’s now a lot older than the stage median. (Martinsville is older now than it was in 1980 but comes in slightly younger than the state median now, at 38.5.)

Virginia localities by median age in 2019. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.

How did Henry County go from being one of the younger localities in the state to one of the oldest? That’s part of a larger phenomenon that demographer Hamilton Lombard of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service explains this way: There once wasn’t that much of a gap between the state’s youngest localities and its oldest. Now there is. The gap between rural Virginia and urban Virginia isn’t simply economic or political, it’s also demographic. Rural areas are now a lot older. They’ve become older largely because young adults have moved away and haven’t been replaced by other young adults. That means the remaining population tends to be older, and there’s no “natural” way to reverse that. Older people tend not to have children; older people tend to die. Demography is cruel.

Across rural Virginia, deaths outnumber births. That’s not unique. That’s the case in smaller communities across much of the country. They are literally dying.

In much of the country, deaths outnumber births. Courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau.

There are only two ways population numbers change:

There’s natural increase or decrease: Either births outnumber deaths or deaths outnumber births.

And then there’s in-migration or out-migration: Either more people move in than move out or more people move out than move in.

Since Martinsville and Henry County – like many other places – are seeing deaths outnumber births, then the only way for them to reverse their declining populations is to persuade more people to move in than move out.

So how’s that working out?

Here we come to two different sets of data that sometimes produce different results. Besides its every-10-years headcount, the Census Bureau produces annual population estimates, which also break down the components of change – births, deaths, people moving in, people moving out. Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service also produces population numbers. The IRS, you see, knows where you live. It produces an annual report on migration, based on where people file their tax returns from. The Census Bureau estimates may include some people who don’t pay taxes, but estimates are ultimately still estimates, no matter how much data they’re based on. The IRS has actual, documented figures. That’s why I like the IRS numbers. They’re real. They may miss some people, sure, but they’re based on real data.

So let’s see what the IRS migration data tells us about Martinsville and Henry County.

The available IRS data goes back to 2000, with the most recent figures being for the tax returns filed in 2020, so largely pre-pandemic. That’s 21 years of data. The IRS data shows that more people moved out of Martinsville than moved in for 20 of those 21 years – the lone exception being in 2015.

That would seem to be a problem, but let’s not jump to conclusions just yet. You know who else saw more people move out than move in for 20 of the past 21 years? Roanoke – and we think of Roanoke as a “successful” city. This out-migration is simply the nature of cities. Think of this common scenario: A young couple starts out in an apartment in a city because that’s what they can afford. Then they have some kids, do better financially, and they start wanting a yard for their kids, or maybe a different school system. (Notice I’m saying “different” and not “better.”) They move out to the county – so where two people moved into the city, four people move out. That’s a net loss of four. Even if a new young couple takes their place, that’s still a net loss of two. In overall population terms, the births of those two children get canceled out when their parents move out of the city, but over time the population remains what it was – two in the beginning, then four, then back to two. That, of course, assumes there are no deaths, but it seems an easy way to visualize how all these population changes play out. This life cycle I just described is basically how cities work. They’re almost always losing people through out-migration; they make it up by births outnumbering deaths. In Roanoke’s case, it’s gained population over two decades – even though it’s consistently had net out-migration.

Cities obviously don’t want to lose too many people through out-migration – I’m sure they’d prefer to gain through in-migration – but we shouldn’t be too alarmed at out-migration in and of itself. What we should pay attention to is the size of that out-migration. In Martinsville’s case, that out-migration doesn’t seem out of proportion. In 2020, the net out-migration accounted for 1% of the city’s population – the same percentage as in Roanoke. So why is Roanoke gaining population (slightly) while Martinsville is losing population (slightly)? In Roanoke, births outnumber deaths. In Martinsville, deaths outnumber births. Put another way, what’s really pulling Martinsville’s population down isn’t so much out-migration as the fact that it has an older population that is dying off faster than young adults can produce new children. Over the past 10 years, Martinsville’s net decrease through deaths outnumbering births has been bigger than its net decrease through out-migration. Put another way, 60% of Martinsville’s population decline is attributable to deaths outnumbering births, not people moving out. Unless Martinsville discovers that the Smith River is really a fountain of youth, the only solution is for the city to dramatically increase the number of young adults moving in – and hope that nature then takes its course. Can Martinsville do that? Ultimately, I have no idea, but there are lots of places that are seeing young adults moving into urban areas. If I were advising Martinsville, I’d advise the city to focus on the strategies that have proven successful in other places – and also not to expect immediate success. Roanoke’s revival traces back to 1977 with the election of a new city council and the hiring of Bern Ewert as city manager.

Where are the people who move out of Martinsville moving to? On a net basis, mostly to Henry County. Over the past five years of data, 60% of those moving out of Martinsville have moved to Henry County. Just under 21% have moved out of state. We don’t know which states – the IRS says most of those have moved to “The South” – but we do know that the biggest single group of out-of-state moves has been to Guilford County, North Carolina – Greensboro. Some 4% of those moving out of Martinsville over the past four years have gone there; the other 17% of out-of-staters have been so dispersed that the IRS suppresses the data for privacy reasons. No other location in Virginia, other than Henry County, tops Guilford County, either – so there’s no large-scale migration out of Martinsville to the Roanoke Valley or the urban crescent. Generally speaking, it’s Henry County that’s the magnet for people moving out of Martinsville. While Martinsville would prefer those people not move out, I’ll read that destination as a good thing: They’re electing to stay in the region. Take your victories where you can get them.

Now, on to Henry County, and here’s where things really get interesting.

For 12 straight years, from 2000 to 2011, Henry County saw more people move out than move in, according to the IRS data.

For 15 of 16 years, from 2000 to 2015, Henry County saw more people move out than move in. (2012 was the exception, and that year saw a net in-migration of just 12 people.)

However, for four of the past five years of data, from 2016 to 2020, Henry County has had more people move in than move out.

We might want to discount one year of data as too small a data point, but when we get consistent results like this over five years, we ought to pay attention.

Something is happening here. So what is it?

Many rural areas are now seeing net in-migration

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 outnumbering deaths (and net out-migration). Most localities in Virginia are seeing more people move in than move out. The most notable exceptions are in Northern Virginia, the Richmond area and Hampton Roads. Migration data from IRS for 2020. Map by Robert Lunsford.

First, this is consistent with statewide trends: Most rural areas are now seeing more people move in than move out — and this was starting to happen before the pandemic. We’re still waiting on more recent data but the expectation is that newer numbers will show these trends accelerating. I’ve dealt with this before in a previous column, so that’s not new. What is new is the deep dive I’m taking into Henry County.

Let’s take a look at these people who are moving into Henry County. The IRS can tell us some things about them.

Bear with me here: We’re about to do some math, but I like to show readers as much raw data as possible.

The IRS says that from 2016 to 2020, some 9,902 people moved into Henry County while 9,587 moved out – a net gain of 315 people.

Of those who moved in, the single biggest group came from out of state – 3,259, or 32.9%. Now, since Henry County sits on the state line, sometimes “out of state” isn’t very far away. If we take out Henry’s neighboring county to the south – Rockingham County, North Carolina – then that “out of state” figure drops to 2,598 – or 26.2% – and becomes the second biggest source of people. We’ll come back to why we might want to do that.

So depending on how we want to count Rockingham County, North Carolina, Martinsville is either the biggest or second biggest source of people moving into Henry County over the past five years – 3,259, or 32.2%.

Between Martinsville and “out of state,” no other single source of people comes close to either of those.

The third biggest is Franklin County – 798 people, or slightly more than 8%.

Fourth biggest is Rockingham County, North Carolina, if we want to count that separately – 661 people, or 6.6%.

Fifth biggest is Pittsylvania County – 495 people, or 4.9%.

That adds up to 84.6%, so what about the other 13.4%?

They come from a bunch of random places where the numbers are so small that the IRS suppresses them for privacy purposes. For instance, some years we can tell what the population exchanges are with Danville and Roanoke and some years we can’t because they involve fewer than 10 people moving one way or another. Suffice it to say that Danville and Roanoke are not big magnets for Henry County either way.

Now, here’s the catch: Henry County also loses people to all those places. On a net basis over the past five years, Henry County has lost a net of 84 people to out of state and gained a net of 288 from Martinsville.

That means 91% of Henry County’s net gain on in-migration over the past five years (288 of that net +315) has been people moving from Martinsville. In terms of the region, that merely represents a reshuffling of population, not an addition to it.

That takes some of the luster off that recent trend of in-migration. Still, we do have a trend. For the 16 years between 2000 and 2015, half saw Henry County lose people to Martinsville and half saw Martinsville lose people to Henry County. Now, for four of the past five years the population flows have been consistently out of Martinsville into Henry County. What’s also changed has been the number of people moving out of Martinsville into Henry County. Over the past five years, 3,192 people have moved from Martinsville to Henry County, an average of 638 a year. For the five years prior to that (2011 to 2015), some 2,757 moved from Martinsville to Henry County, an average of 551 a year. For whatever reason, the exodus from Martinsville to Henry County has increased. That’s what’s driving Henry County’s net in-migration.

And yet Henry County’s population still declines. Deaths in Henry County outnumber both births and any gains the county sees from net in-migration over out-migration.

If there’s any consolation in these numbers, it’s this: Even if there were no movement back and forth with Martinsville, Henry County would still be posting a slight net in-migration from other places.

Henry runs modest population trade surpluses with three of its four neighboring counties: Franklin County, Pittsylvania County and Rockingham County, North Carolina. It has a population trade deficit with Patrick County. Over the past five years, 106 more people moved from Henry to Patrick than from Patrick to Henry. But back to the plus side:

Over the past five years, 139 more people moved from Franklin County to Henry County than moved the other way, 85 more people moved from Rockingham County to Henry County than moved the other way and 70 more people moved from Pittsylvania County to Henry County than moved the other way. Those may not be big numbers but they do show that Henry County is a magnet. It would be better for the Martinsville-Henry County region if Henry County drew more people from those places – or other places – than from Martinsville, but Henry County does show some magnetic tendencies.

I’m particularly interested in the people moving across the state line from Rockingham County. We often think of North Carolina as our economic rival and it is. For instance, Henry County runs a population trade deficit with Greensboro. Over the past five years, 214 people moved from Guilford County to Henry County but 395 moved the other way – a net loss of 181. It’s hard for any rural locality to compete with a metro but I do find it interesting that Henry is “winning” against Rockingham County.

We can also draw some conclusions from the absence of data: There’s no significant movement from Henry County to or from Virginia’s urban crescent. (Or from Northern Virginia to much of rural Virginia, for that matter; see previous column).

Here’s what the United States would look like if its states were redrawn along economic lines. Courtesy of “An Economic Geography of the United States.”

This fits into a larger conclusion drawn a few years ago by two geographers who drew a map of the United States based on economic data – specifically commuting patterns. Garrett Dash Nelson and Alasdair Rae found that, economically speaking, much of Virginia isn’t in Virginia. They found that the Roanoke Valley, and much of Southside – including Martinsville and Danville – are really economically connected with North Carolina. This population data seems to bear that out: Henry County has more population exchanges with Greensboro than with Roanoke, and almost none with the urban crescent. Martinsville and Henry County abide by Virginia’s laws, but they’re more influenced by North Carolina’s economy.

If I were to give advice to Martinsville and Henry County, it would be pretty obvious: If they want to turn around their declining population, they need to attract new residents, particularly younger ones who might someday have children. Even then, the population will still decline for a while, given the high deaths-over-births ratios. That’s also a bit like telling someone to eat healthier and lose weight – easy advice to give, but often hard to pull off.

There is one wild card looming out there, though.

An aerial view. Courtesy of the Southern Virginia Mega Site.

An 8,000-job wild card?

Next door to Henry County is Pittsylvania County and in Pittsylvania County is the Southern Virginia Mega Site, a massive (3,528-acre) tract of undeveloped land that has been set aside in hopes of attracting a major employer. The site has come close several times, most recently this year when it came in second to Savannah, Georgia, for an 8,100-job electric vehicle battery plant for Hyundai. At some point something will wind up there. It could be this afternoon, it could be five years from now – we just don’t know. We do know, though, that there’s a race among automakers right now to gear up for making electric vehicles – and to re-shore as much of their supply chains as possible. We also know that Georgia, which has snagged a lot of these jobs, now frets that it’s running out of big sites, at least for a while. At some point, the Southern Virginia Mega Site won’t come in second, it will come in first. The governor will fly in for an announcement the likes of which we haven’t seen in this part of the state. When that happens, the impact on the southern part of Virginia is going to be beyond our current comprehension. The laborshed for a plant of that size will extend far beyond Pittsylvania County. Henry County won’t get the tax revenues, but it will get a lot of the population growth that will surely result.

Community leaders in Henry County and Martinsville today may wring their hands over population losses, but they really need to be planning for population growth that could be just one corporate decision away.

These Henry County numbers show that the first wave of that has already started.

Dwayne Yancey

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