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One of my favorite songs is “Wishlist” by Pearl Jam, mostly for this line: “I wish I was a messenger and all the news was good.”
The key word there is “wish.” The implication, of course, is that the news isn’t always good.
I hope that Gov. Glenn Youngkin keeps that in mind as he reads this column, because I’m about to disappoint him.
First as a candidate, and later as governor, Youngkin has consistently called attention to one set of statistics: Virginia has more people moving out than moving in. This trend — called net out-migration by the demographers — has been going on since 2013, but Youngkin is the first governor I’m aware of to make a big deal about it.
Youngkin’s concerns are legitimate, although some dispute his analysis of the causes. The concern is that people are voting with their feet, as Ronald Reagan used to say. This has implications — not good ones — for the economy. Virginia’s overall population is still growing, but only because births outnumber both deaths and the net out-migration. In the beginning, it was only the older age cohorts that saw net out-migration — retirees packing up and moving south. Now, though, this is happening in every age cohort. In recent years, the biggest statistical change has been in the 18-to-28 cohort. We export more college graduates than we import. If you’re trying to build a bigger economy, this is not the way to do it.
I give Youngkin high marks for calling attention to these metrics. He’s absolutely right about the numbers and their negative implications. Whether he’s right about the causes of them is a matter of political taste. He blames high taxes for driving people out of Virginia, which is what is behind his goal of trying to cut them (that’s the main thing holding up state budget negotiations). Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax County, in a commentary piece in Cardinal News last month, said the problem is that Virginia hasn’t invested sufficiently in transportation in Northern Virginia — the biggest out-migration is from there. Demographers cite high housing costs in Northern Virginia, as well. We will not settle that argument today.
Instead, let’s look at what’s new. Two different moving companies — United Van Lines and U-Haul — have released their 2022 migration data. Both report good news for Virginia. United Van Lines has the more detailed report: It shows Virginia registering slight net in-migration in 2022, with 52.2% of the company’s moves involving Virginia being people moving into the state and 47.8% being people moving out of the state. United Van Lines’s detailed data online only goes back to 2014; this is the first time Virginia has been in the net in-migration category. Before 2013, the company only lists states by a color code. The year 1988 was the last year Virginia was shaded in a way to indicate a clear preference for net in-migration; all the years between 2013 and 1989 are gray to show the numbers are about even, which is what they are now.
(Some curiosities: Of the six categories United Van Lines lists for people moving, three are pretty even between inbound and outbound — retirement, health and family — while three are definitely out of balance. The biggest imbalance outbound is for jobs — 17.65% of United Van Lines customers are moving into the state for a job while 39.43% are moving out. Those can’t be numbers the governor would like. The biggest imbalances inbound are for lifestyle and costs. United Van Lines says 23.53% of its customers moved into Virginia for lifestyle reasons and only 11.11% moved out, while 11.76% moved into Virginia for cost-related reasons while only 5.73% moved out. To the extent that taxes are part of costs, that doesn’t seem to support Youngkin’s thesis that taxes are driving people out of the state, although that wouldn’t address corporate taxes, either.)
Meanwhile, U-Haul’s data shows Virginia as the nation’s fifth-biggest inbound state in 2022, surpassed only by Texas, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina, in that order. Virginia was the biggest riser, jumping from 31st to fifth in a single year. The biggest outbound state: California, followed by Illinois, Michigan, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey.
Much of this data feels right. We already know from the Census Bureau that California and those other states have been losing population and that Texas, Florida and the Carolinas have been gaining.
The governor’s office is certainly pleased with these two reports. “We view these data points as a nod to the progress made under Governor Youngkin’s tenure,” press secretary Macaulay Porter told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
However, since Youngkin has made changing Virginia’s migration trends a matter of policy here in Virginia, we ought to go with something more than feel. I don’t doubt that the United Van Lines and U-Haul data is real — but is it indicative of larger trends beyond those two companies?
To answer that, I turned to my go-to source for demographic data, Hamilton Lombard at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. He wasn’t quite as cheery about this data as the governor’s office was.
“I’ve never seen that data analyzed by demographers or economists, which doesn’t mean it is useless but probably would be more useful as part of some composite of indicators,” he told me by email. “Whenever I look at United Moving Line data it mostly appears correct but keep in mind that the people who hire a moving company are fairly unrepresentative: about 45 percent of their customers in 2022 had income levels above 150K, about double the percent of households in Virginia with that income.”
In other words, it’s not exactly a representative sample. On the other hand, it’s probably always been unrepresentative — and for a long time it showed net out-migration, but now we’re seeing slight net in-migration. That counts for something; we just don’t know how much.
Lombard has been analyzing some other metrics: postal change of addresses for every ZIP code in the state. “This data has the caveat that it excludes small zip codes but I think it is still much higher quality than the moving van data,” he said, because it would cover more people. Not everyone uses a moving company but almost everybody gets mail. From March 2019 to February 2023, the dates he’s working with, the Postal Service shows net out-migration from Virginia for every single month.
“The data in the first chart shows a different trend than moving van data, with the difference between the number of addresses transferred to Virginia zip codes and those transferred away widening,” he said.
“The second chart shows that migration to and from Virginia appears to be slowing, this is largely true nationally as the housing market has weakened,” Lombard said. “One other factor likely at play is that with remote work looking increasingly permanent, fewer people are relocating for new jobs.”
So what’s all this mean?
“Since neither the monthly postal service data or the moving van data are comprehensive, they both could be right,” Lombard said. “Virginia might be pulling in more young workers, which the moving van data shows. Young workers often don’t receive enough mail to bother forwarding it (at my address in Charlottesville I receive mail for a half a dozen former college students who once lived there) so the postal service data could be missing this. The more likely scenario though I think is moving van data wasn’t representative enough of the total population in 2022.”
Youngkin is right to be excited about the moving van data, but he can’t declare victory quite yet.
Want more on Virginia’s demographics? We’ve collected all our stories here.