Screenshot of Gov. Glenn Youngkin addressing the legislature.
Screenshot of Gov. Glenn Youngkin addressing the legislature.

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Sometimes governors acquire shorthand titles.

Gerald Baliles was known as the transportation governor.

Lots of governors have wanted to be known as the education governor.

Ralph Northam became the social justice governor after first being called something else.

In that spirit, let me hereby declare Glenn Youngkin to be the demographics governor.

OK, that may not be the catchiest nickname but it’s an apt one: Youngkin has spent more time talking about Virginia’s demographics than any governor I’ve known (and my memory goes back further than I’d like to admit). There’s one figure in particular that Youngkin talks a lot about: how Virginia has more people moving out than moving in – “out-migration” in the language of demographers. Virginia is still gaining population – births outnumber deaths, but what’s really driving the state’s modest population growth, and offsetting out-migration, is immigration. Beneath the surface of that population growth, though, there’s a silent outflow of people that alarms Youngkin – and ought to alarm others, as well.

Youngkin talked about this during the campaign, he’s talked about it in speeches about the economy, he returned to it in his recent State of the Commonwealth address. I’ve written about these numbers before, but this time Youngkin added more context that’s worth exploring:

“Since the start of the pandemic, Virginia has been in the bottom 10 for net OUT-migration in the country. The states we compete against for jobs and investment are on the opposite end of that spectrum. North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and Texas are all in the top 10 for net IN-migration. These states have grown by more than 1.7 million people while Virginia has lost over 32,000.”

Until now, I’ve looked at Virginia in the context of itself; this out-migration didn’t start until 2013 but has continued every year since then. At first, it was simply people of retirement age moving south – the classic snowbirds – but more recently we’re seeing net out-migration in every age cohort.

Today, let’s take Youngkin up on his challenge and look at Virginia’s demographics trends in a national context.

How net in-migration and out-migration varies from state to state. Source: Harvard and Census Bureau.

The three states with the biggest net out-migration in 2021 (the most recent year available) were:

California: -367,299

New York: -352,185

Illinois: -122,460

These are pretty enormous numbers. In Virginia terms, California’s net out-migration is almost the equivalent of everyone in Botetourt County, Roanoke, Roanoke County, Salem, Montgomery County and Radford picking up and moving out in a single year.

Virginia is nowhere near that scale, but we are on the same side of the ledger.

Next come:

Massachusetts: -46,187

Louisiana: -30,312

New Jersey: -27,766

Maryland: -19,871

Minnesota: -13,453

Hawaii: -12,603 (Who moves out of Hawaii???)

Then comes Virginia at -8,995.

So Youngkin is right. Virginia is in the bottom 10, exactly number 10.

The other states posting net out-migration:

Michigan: -7,893

North Dakota: -6,460

Kansas: -5,241

Mississippi: -4,246

Alaska: -3,879

Nebraska: -3,313

Pennsylvania: -3,194

Ohio: -3,128

New Mexico: -2,186

Washington: -29

So what should we make of this list? There are lots of ways to slice this. Geographically, many of these states are so-called Rust Belt states in the Midwest and Northeast that have long been struggling with the economic changes brought on by a post-industrial economy – although California is a clear exception. The Golden State has been gaining population since its founding; now for the first time it’s not only seeing net out-migration, it’s seeing overall population decline. The National Football League’s Raiders aren’t the only California residents who have decamped for Las Vegas. Meanwhile, the states with the biggest in-migration counts are all in the Sun Belt, led by Florida at 220,890. 

Republicans like to point out that the biggest population losers are high-tax Democratic states, and that’s certainly true. On the other hand, not all these states are Democratic ones. Some are quite definitely Republican ones, so partisan governance may not be as much of a determinant as some might like to believe.

Youngkin likes to draw a distinction between the tax policies in Virginia and its rival states in the Southeast – with Virginia raising taxes and others lowering them. Is that really the driving factor, though? Or are tax policies incidental to other things, such as warmer weather? That’s almost a philosophical argument. Tennessee, for instance, has no income tax, but it’s tied with Louisiana for the highest sales tax in the country. Does that make Tennessee a low-tax state or a high-tax state? The conservative-leaning Tax Foundation says that Virginia has the lowest sales tax in the South, and one of the lowest sales taxes in the country. If you’re wealthy, then the income tax matters a lot more than the sales tax – so opinions vary. On the other hand, Virginia’s corporate income tax is higher than that of Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, so it’s not hard to imagine some company running the numbers on a relocation decision and concluding that those states are more economical options, even if they do have higher sales taxes.

Whether for tax-driven reasons or some other reason, some of those other states are drawing in people while Virginia is losing them. Why? Youngkin says it’s because other states have low-tax policies that are driving more economic growth, but I haven’t heard anyone advance an alternative theory. It would be nice to hear Democrats offer their own explanation for these migration numbers because something sure seems to be happening here.

In 2021, Virginia saw out-migration of 8,995 while North Carolina saw net in-migration of 88,673 and Tennessee saw net in-migration of 61,390. The difference between those numbers seems too big to ignore, yet Youngkin seems to be the only politician talking about them. More context: While Virginia had the tenth highest out-migration in the country, North Carolina had the fourth highest in-migration, behind only Florida, Texas and Arizona. The only other places where there’s such a high net out-migration state next to a high net in-migration state are the California-Arizona and the Louisana-Texas state lines.

Even West Virginia – poor, woebegone West Virginia that we all like to make fun of – saw net in-migration of 2,343. So did Kentucky at 10,022. Alabama, another state we don’t generally compare ourselves with, saw nearly three times as much net in-migration as Virginia did – 22,136.

Why is West Virginia gaining people while Virginia is losing?

To some extent, we know part of the reason and it may have nothing to do with the tax-driven reasons Youngkin advances. Virginia’s net out-migration is entirely due to more people moving out of Northern Virginia than are moving in. Fairfax County alone posted a net out-migration of 8,752 in 2021, according to Census Bureau estimates. Arlington was -5,801 and Alexandria was -4,391. For what it’s worth, the Internal Revenue Service, which also tracks where people live, puts the net out-migration even higher – 14,231 out of Fairfax County, -8,016 out of Arlington, -5,042 out of Alexandria. 

Either way, those three localities alone account for more than Virginia’s entire net out-migration figure. Most Virginia localities saw net in-migration – even most of those in rural Southwest and Southside. On the other hand, even if Northern Virginia wasn’t losing anybody and Virginia’s net migration was even, we still wouldn’t compare to those big numbers in North Carolina, Tennessee and other Southeastern states.

The most commonly cited reason for that huge outflow from Northern Virginia is high housing prices. Northern Virginia also exists in a different economic orbit than the rest of Virginia, so someone there looking for another job may not find it downstate; Internal Revenue Service migration data shows people from Northern Virginia moving instead to Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle (so there’s a case where California and Washington state are picking up people, not losing them).

It’s possible, of course, that there are multiple drivers here. Maybe high housing prices are driving people out of Northern Virginia and maybe favorable corporate tax rates are boosting the economies in Southeastern states.

All we can say for certain is that, demographically speaking, Virginia is starting to look more like a Rust Belt state than a Sun Belt state. Or, at least part of Virginia is, and it’s not the one people might expect. Shouldn’t we be talking more about that?

Dwayne Yancey

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