How the state's population has changed since 2020. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.
How the state's population has changed since 2020. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.

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COVID – or something – is reshaping Virginia.

The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia has just released its annual population estimates, and they contain more bombshells than one of those supermarket tabloids. The only difference is that instead of the latest revelation about the feuding British royals, these scoops on Prince Edward and Prince George and Prince William deal with the counties bearing those names – and all the other localities in Virginia.

The estimates give us six big pieces of news:

1. Virginia would be losing population if it weren’t for immigration. Overall, Virginia gained population – barely. But more people moved out of state than moved into the state. More people were born than died. However, the net out-migration was so big that it outnumbered births over deaths, meaning Virginia would have lost population if it weren’t for international migration. Gov. Glenn Youngkin has devoted much of his governorship to warning about Virginia’s decade of net out-migration – I wrote a column just last week about the figures he cited in his State of the Commonwealth address. These numbers further validate his concerns.

2. The biggest population losses are from Northern Virginia. Yes, you read that right.

3. The second biggest population losses are from Hampton Roads. Yes, you read that right, too.

4. The fastest-growing part of the state is now the Richmond area. Chesterfield County is the new Loudoun County. Meanwhile … 

5. Many rural localities are seeing more people move in than move out. This isn’t as big a surprise as it might seem; we’ve seen other data that has foreshadowed this. Still, seeing it in black and white in the form of official estimates from the state’s demographic center is important. Nonetheless, many rural localities are still seeing population declines because deaths in aging communities so overwhelmingly outnumber both births and the number of people moving in. However, in many places we’re seeing those population declines slow – and, most interestingly …

6. Some rural counties are now seeing actual population growth. 

Let’s look at these trends in depth.

Immigration drives statewide population growth

The center estimates Virginia’s population is now 8,696,966, up 52,228, or 0.6%, since the 2020 census. The big story, though, is how that population has changed. The demographic downer: “Domestic out-migration is about as high as we have seen it since 2012,” says Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with the Weldon Cooper Center.

The actual figures:

Births minus deaths 27,930  

Domestic migration -29,775

International migration (immigration) 52,762

That means people moving out of state more than canceled out the state’s surplus of births over deaths. Statewide, immigration is the only reason Virginia is gaining population.

How the state's population has changed since 2020. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.
How the state’s population has changed since 2020. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.

Northern Virginia’s population losses accelerate

This may strike some as the shocker: Northern Virginia is losing population. We’ve reported this beforetwice, in fact – so this shouldn’t be that much of a shocker. But these estimates show those population losses accelerating. The localities losing population are Alexandria, Fairfax County, Fairfax city, Falls Church and Manassas – all except Manassas are in what might be considered the “inner ring” of Northern Virginia. The localities in the “outer ring” are still growing. I’ll try not to bury you in too many numbers (some of you may already think it’s too late), but the main numbers to look at come from Fairfax County. Last year, the estimates showed Fairfax County had lost 4,976 people since 2000. Now its population is estimated to be down 10,554 since 2000, so the population decline has gotten a little faster. 

Why is Fairfax County, often called “the suburb that ate Virginia,” now losing population? Mathematically speaking, it’s because people in the county are moving out of state. Births outnumber deaths in Fairfax County, but the county’s net out-migration is now estimated at 26,200 people since 2000. So the real question is why are so many people in Fairfax moving out of state? We’ve looked at this before: The short answer is a combination of retirees moving to Southeastern states and working adults who, when they relocate, are moving to other metros, not to other places in Virginia. And then there are high housing prices that make it difficult for newcomers to move in. I’ve also heard some blame the region’s perpetually gridlocked traffic. These seem difficult problems to resolve. The governor can’t make people younger, and there’s no comparable economy to Northern Virginia anywhere else in the state. Maybe there is a way to create more affordable housing but that hasn’t happened yet.

Hampton Roads is also losing population

Most of the localities in Hampton Roads are losing population – Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Portsmouth, if you’re working your way around clockwise. The only ones gaining are Chesapeake, Suffolk and tiny Poquoson, but they don’t make up for the population losses of the other localities. 

We think of localities losing population being primarily rural, but that’s no longer true. Of the 10 localities losing the most people between 2000 and 2020, all but three are in the urban crescent. Granted, those localities are bigger so they have more people they can lose. On a percentage basis, the steepest declines are still in rural areas, but this is a historic shift in population trends so we ought to pay attention:

Fairfax County: -10,554

Virginia Beach: -4,085

Newport News: -2,743

Henry County: -2,113

Alexandria: -1,339

Portsmouth: -1,215

Pittsylvania County: -1,135

Buchanan County: -921

Smyth County: -775

Hampton: -761

As with Northern Virginia, the population losses in Hampton Roads are driven entirely by people moving out. Births outnumber deaths in every locality in Hampton Roads, but people are moving out at big rates. By contrast, the population losses in rural areas are usually a combination of people moving out and deaths outnumbering births. In two of the rural localities on the list above (Pittsylvania and Smyth), the preponderance of deaths over births accounts for most of its population decline. Even in Buchanan County, the figures are about the same. 

Of the 10 localities with the most net out-migration, all but two are in the urban crescent:

Fairfax County: -26,200

Virginia Beach: -7,694

Alexandria: -4,963

Norfolk: -2,167

Portsmouth: -1,435

Richmond: -1,372

Hampton: -1,230

Henry County: -1,142

Manassas: -921

Radford: -744

The localities growing and shrinking the fastest over the past two years. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.
The localities growing and shrinking the fastest over the past two years. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.

The fastest-growing region in the state is now the Richmond area.

Chesterfield County has added more people than any other locality in the state – almost as many as Loudoun County and Prince William County put together. Here’s how much Chesterfield’s growth has picked up: In last year’s population estimates, Chesterfield had total growth of 5,395 while Loudoun was at 4,245. Now Loudoun’s population growth has more than doubled but Chesterfield’s has more than tripled.

While they don’t make the top 10, other localities around Richmond come close – Hanover County (up 2,430), Henrico County (up 1,685), and even more outlying counties such as Louisa County (up 2,129) and Powhatan County (up 1,032). The Richmond area is now the state’s growth center. Generally speaking, the top 10 localities adding the most people is dominated by what might be termed exurban localities on the outskirts of major metros:

Chesterfield County: 17,310

Loudoun County: 10,047

Prince William County: 8,121

Stafford County: 6,312

Spotsylvania County: 4,981

Suffolk: 4,855

Frederick County: 3,452

Albemarle County: 3,100

Arlington County: 2,640

Chesapeake: 2,537

However, the reasons for their population growth vary. In Chesterfield, it’s primarily because more people are moving in than moving out – of its 17,310 population gain, 15,160 is because of net in-migration. On the other hand, in Loudoun and Prince William, it’s because of the birth rate. Of Loudoun’s 10,047 increase, births over deaths account for 7,029 of that. The figures in Prince William County are more stark. Births exceed deaths by 7,989 while the county’s net in-migration is only 132. The same out-migration trends that afflict Fairfax County seem to be moving into neighboring counties. 

The Richmond area’s population growth is remaking some of its more rural neighbors. Goochland, Louisa and Powhatan are like many rural counties: Deaths exceed births. But newcomers are overwhelming those numbers. Just one example: Louisa saw deaths exceed births by 64, but net in-migration outnumbered net out-migration by 2,193 for a total population gain of 2,129. 

This map shows which localities have more people moving out than moving in -- or more moving in than moving out. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.
This map shows which localities have more people moving out than moving in — or more moving in than moving out. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.

Many rural localities are now seeing so many people move in that they’re gaining population for the first time in decades.

This is a trend that was happening before the pandemic but now it’s accelerated. Bath County, Bland County and Grayson County haven’t seen population growth since the 1990s; now they’re posting slight gains since 2020. Highland County hasn’t seen population growth since the 1970s; it’s also up. The numbers are small – population up by two in Highland, up by 14 in Grayson, 19 in Bath, 25 in Bland County. Still, these numbers represent reversals of decades-long trends. In Galax, the population is up by 58. In all those places, deaths outnumber births, so those localities are seeing enough new people move in to offset both people moving out and the high death rates.

Lombard points out that 2020 and 2021 have been marked by higher-than-usual death rates in rural areas due to the COVID pandemic. “Without the spike in deaths since 2020, more rural counties would be growing. As COVID deaths decline, some could see more growth if people keep moving in.”

Many of these new rural residents appear to be young adults. How do we know? While birth rates overall are declining, births are picking up in some rural localities. “About a third of Virginia’s counties (38 of 95) have seen the number of births increase since 2016,” Lombard says. “Most of the 38 are rural or exurban, which suggests to me that some are attracting more young families than in the past.” Every rural locality I know wants more young adults; it seems some of them are actually succeeding. Whether this is a result of policy or the pandemic, this is a huge win for those communities.

Many localities are seeing more people move in than move out – but they’re still losing population because deaths outnumber births. They are: Amelia County, Botetourt County, Carroll County, Charlotte County, Covington, Danville, Essex County, Giles County, Martinsville, Mecklenburg County, Norton, Nottoway County, Pulaski County, Roanoke, Roanoke County, Scott County, Washington County and Wythe County. The free market seems to be saying that these are all desirable places to live – otherwise they wouldn’t be seeing net in-migration – but that desirability is masked by an aging population and high death rates. For some of these localities, these numbers still represent a win even if their populations are still going down. For instance, between 2020 and 2021, Giles saw a net in-migration of eight people. Now it’s up to 170. Mecklenburg saw a net in-migration of 44 people in the first year after the census; now, in two years, it’s up to 402. Something is happening.

This map shows localities where deaths outnumber births -- and where births outnumber deaths. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.
This map shows localities where deaths outnumber births — and where births outnumber deaths. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.

Of course, there are some localities that are losing people two ways – deaths outnumber births and more people move out than move in. The good news for all of them: Those net out-migration numbers have narrowed so that overall population declines have slowed. Still, we can divide them into two categories:

Some localities have lost population primarily because of deaths.

As you can see in the map above, a lot of localities have more deaths than births; some of them have been able to overcome that with net in-migration, some haven’t. Others haven’t.

What we’re really interested in here are the localities that lost population overall and lost it two ways — but where it’s primarily due to deaths rather than people moving out. Twenty localities fit into this category. That list includes Pittsylvania County, where population is down overall by 1,135. Of that, deaths outnumbered births by 810 while those moving out outnumbered those moving in by 325. It also includes Wise County, where the population is down overall by 615 – because deaths outnumbered births by 526 while those moving out outnumbered those moving in by 89. Others in this category include Accomack County, Brunswick County, Charles City County, Dickenson County, Emporia, Floyd County, Franklin city, Greensville County, Halifax County, Hopewell, Lee County, Northampton County, Page County, Patrick County, Russell County, Smyth County, Surry County, Tazewell County and Wythe County. All those localities seem relatively close to turning around their migration trends, but it’s hard to deal with an aging population. Unfortunately, that brings us to the hardest cases:

This map shows how the localities that have lost population have lost it. Those in black have lost population two ways — deaths outnumber births and people moving out outnumber those moving in but, of the two, the deaths over births figure is the biggest. Those in gray have deaths outnumbering births, but also have more people moving in than moving out, it’s just that the death figure remains biggest. Those in red have lost population two ways — deaths outnumber births and people moving out outnumber those moving in but, of the two, people moving out is the biggest figure. Those in pink have more births than deaths, but also more people moving out than moving in, and that figure exceeds the births over deaths. All the ones in green have gained population (although some of them may still have more deaths than births, it’s just that people moving in have made up the difference). Map based on data from Weldon Cooper Center.

Some localities have lost population primarily because of people moving out.

These localities have more people dying than being born but their biggest problem is people packing up and moving out. Seven localities fit into this category: Buchanan County, Bristol, Henry County, Lexington, Prince Edward County, Radford, Sussex County. Of those, three have colleges (Lexington, Prince Edward and Radford), so it’s hard to know how much that skews things. The remaining four – Buchanan County, Henry County, Russell County, Sussex County – offer clearer analysis. Henry saw its population decline by 2,113; that’s because deaths outnumbered births by 971 while those moving out outnumbered those moving in by 1,142. Last fall, I wrote about how IRS data showed Henry County posting net in-migration; unfortunately, that’s not reflected in these numbers. I still think the Martinsville-Henry County community is primed for growth. A big factory landing in the Southern Virginia Mega Site next door in Pittsylvania would have a profound demographic ripple effect all across the state’s southern border. And in an age where developers are having a field day rehabbing old buildings – from the old Dan River Mills building in Danville to the American Viscose plant in Roanoke – Martinsville would seem to be a developer’s dream. 

The long-standing phrase about any kind of census numbers is that demography is destiny and it is. But sometimes destinies change: People move. And we’re starting to see some significant changes in where people are moving.

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Dwayne Yancey

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