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Let’s dig deeper into the new population estimates for Virginia.
The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia recently released its latest figures showing how much the population has changed locality-by-locality since the 2020 census. I dealt with the major trends in a previous column: Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads are losing population, the Richmond metro is now the fastest-growing part of the state, but we’re also seeing many rural areas gain population. Even many rural areas that are technically losing population are now seeing more people move in than move out; they’re just losing population because, in an aging population, deaths outnumber births and everything else.
Here are some other ways to slice that data:
1. Montgomery County is now the most populous locality west of Albemarle County. This may have happened in 2020. The official census count for Montgomery County that year was 99,721 but demographer Hamilton Lombard says the census missed about 1,500 college students due to the pandemic. The Weldon Cooper Center discounts any census counts that year for localities where more than 20% of the population is enrolled in college; instead, it goes with estimates – and the official estimate that year for Montgomery County was 101,323 while Roanoke was officially counted at 100,011. In any case, now the official estimates are that Montgomery County is up to 102,061 while Roanoke has slipped to 99,634 and Roanoke County has fallen to 96,605. The Roanoke Valley remains more populous than the New River Valley but their relative positions are shifting. You’ll notice some other things from those numbers …
2. Roanoke County is now losing population. The county hasn’t lost population since the 1940s and some of that was likely from the disruptions of World War II. Otherwise, the county has steadily been gaining population since 1900 as it’s evolved from a rural county into a suburban one. So why is the county now losing population? Easy: Its population is aging. More people are moving into the county than moving out – but even more are moving out in a hearse. Over the past two years, deaths have outnumbered births by 907. In the whole state, only Henry County has more deaths over births than Roanoke County: 971. In third place is Pittsylvania County, where deaths outnumbered births by 810. Tazewell County is fourth at 788. Henry, Pittsylvania and Tazewell are rural counties that have seen traditional employers decline, triggering years of net out-migration that have resulted in an older population that’s now dying off. Roanoke County has been a seemingly economically successful suburb, but now it’s aging out.
3. Roanoke is losing population – again. After two decades of population losses, the city’s population fell to 94,911 in 2000. Since then it’s been gaining, and the city was proud to climb back over the 100,000 mark (barely) in 2000. Now it’s slipped. Why is this happening? You’ll sense a trend here: Too many people dying and not enough being born – over the past two years deaths exceeded births by a staggering 444. More people are moving into Roanoke than are moving out, but not enough to overcome those high death rates. Some of these death rates may be abnormally high due to COVID but most localities also simply have an older age structure – a lot of older residents and not that many young adults, due to a combination of declining birth rates and, in some places, years of young adults moving away. This is one reason city officials are so keen on projects such as the redevelopment of the old American Viscose factory – the potential to create new housing to be able to attract new (and presumably younger) residents. Same with the Valleydale project in Salem, which is also now officially in the population-losing category, solely because of deaths. These high death rates are unavoidable in aging communities but still frustrating. If you think of migration as people “voting with their feet,” then people are voting in the marketplace in favor of Roanoke and Roanoke County and Salem and lots of other places. Economically, the marketplace has deemed them desirable places to live – but as long as deaths outnumber births (and net in-migration) they will continue to lose population.
4. Franklin County is still losing population. This is one of the biggest turnarounds in the state. From the 1950s through the 2020 census, Franklin County consistently gained population, often by double-digit rates that made it one of the fastest-growing localities in the state. The 1980 census showed Franklin’s growth rate at 33%; by 2010 it was still 18.8%. However, the 2020 census showed the county losing 3.0% of its population. Now the latest estimates show Franklin losing 0.6% of its population over the past two years – a slow rate but still a decline. What happened to Franklin’s growth machine? And how can the county be losing population when Smith Mountain Lake is booming? The answers to those two questions might be related. Many of the people who moved into the county in earlier years were retirees – and, well, um, older people tend to die. The latest population estimates show more people moving into Franklin County than moving out, but an awful lot of people are dying – so many that they outnumber both births and the county’s net in-migration. In that regard, Franklin is similar to a lot of other rural counties that are seeing an influx of people moving in, yet are still seeing their overall populations decline.
5. Net in-migration is masking Bedford County’s death rate. Bedford County’s deaths-over-births number is a little higher than Franklin County’s – 584. However, Bedford has more than five times as much net in-migration, due to its proximity to Lynchburg. Franklin had net in-migration of 194; Bedford 1,065.
6. Henry County’s population losses are accelerating. Henry lost 3,203 during the decade leading up to the 2020 census. In the first two years since that census, the estimates show it’s already lost 2,113. This represents a mix of two negative factors: deaths outnumbering births (-971) and more people moving out than moving in (-1,142). Henry County, as well as some other rural counties, needs more young adults moving in. By contrast, Martinsville is also losing population but it’s entirely due to deaths outnumbering births; Martinsville, unlike Henry, has more people moving in than moving out. That’s a demographic trend that Martinsville can celebrate – and perhaps build on.
7. Pittsylvania County’s population losses are accelerating, too, but in a different way. In the decade leading up to the last census, Pittsylvania lost 3,005 people. In the two years since the census, it’s lost another 1,135. However, Pittsylvania’s losses are primarily due to deaths outnumbering births (-810) rather than more people moving out than moving in (-325). If you look simply at the bottom line, Henry and Pittsylvania seem to have the same problem (population decline), but they really have different problems. Pittsylvania’s problem is primarily an aging population, Henry’s is a combination of an aging population and moving vans. We can’t do anything about death, but the solution to more deaths than births is to increase births and the best way to do that is to increase the number of young adults. Pittsylvania is closer to making that happen than Henry is.
8. The only locality on this side of the state that is in the double-plus category – with more births than deaths, and more people moving in than moving out – is Appomattox County. We typically see that only in high-growth areas. Among the other localities notching a plus sign in both demographic categories are Albemarle County and Chesapeake and Chesterfield County and Henrico County and Suffolk and multiple localities on the outskirts of the Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads metros. In our part of the state, Appomattox is very much the outlier. The county saw 372 more people move in than move out, although that figure isn’t that unusual, given the new migration trends we’re seeing. What really makes Appomattox unusual is that births outnumbered deaths by 43 – for a total population gain of 415. Appomattox is seeing growth push out from Lynchburg and, apparently, many of those new residents are in their child-bearing years.
9. Appomattox and Lynchburg are the only localities in this part of the state that have more births than deaths. I’ve pointed out before that Lynchburg is the youngest major metro in the state, so fecundity is a natural result of a young median age. Lynchburg, though, did have more people move out than move in, resulting in a population decline. I’ve addressed in a previous column why such out-migrations are often normal in cities. That out-migration does run counter to other trends we’re seeing in the region – Roanoke, Danville and Martinsville all have net in-migration – but Lynchburg’s figures (-319) may also be skewed by the large number of college students there. This figure probably isn’t cause for alarm in the Hill City; the more notable thing is Lynchburg’s young median age and its births-over-deaths figure (51). By contrast, Roanoke, as noted earlier, had 444 more deaths than births.
10. Perhaps the most overlooked growth spot in Southwest Virginia is Washington County. I say overlooked because overall the county is losing population – down 212 in the past two years – but as we’ve seen with so many other places, it’s simply because deaths outnumber births. Since 2020, Washington County has seen 458 more people move in than move out. That’s a higher figure than any other locality west of Montgomery County. Washington County is about half the size of Roanoke County but their net in-migrations are pretty similar – Roanoke County’s is 583. If you only looked at people moving in, and not at the obituaries, Washington County would be the population hotspot of Southwest Virginia. By contrast, three of its neighbors – Bristol, Russell County and Smyth County – all suffer from net out-migration.
Having said all this, I should probably deliver (perhaps belatedly) the caveat that we shouldn’t hang that much on two-year estimates. Things go up, things go down. But when we see these numbers flesh out longer-term trends, as many of these do, that’s when we should pay attention. We need to put away some of our old impressions of this part of Virginia, because it’s changing all around us.