Read all our coverage of Virginia’s changing demographics here.
June is the most popular month for weddings, and the Census Bureau has gifted us with a shower of statistics on how American households are organized.
In Virginia, the localities with the highest share of married households tend to be suburban or exurban ones.
In Loudoun County and Powhatan County, 65% of the households are married couples.
In New Kent County, 64%.
Just behind them are Stafford County and Poquoson at 62%, Goochland County and York County at 61% and Botetourt County at 60%.
This can probably be explained as much by economics as by demographics: Some of these communities — looking at you, Loudoun County — are expensive places to live, so it’s probably hard to live there as a single person with just one income. In Botetourt County, where I live, there’s been a paucity of rental units, which also makes it hard to attract younger adults, be they single or couples. With an eye toward attracting a younger workforce, Botetourt has been working on making more rental units available but, like an aircraft carrier, it’s hard to turn around demographic trends quickly. If you’re married and looking to live in the Roanoke Valley, Botetourt County is certainly an option. If you’re single, odds are you’ll wind up in Roanoke or Roanoke County, where there are more rental options. That means Roanoke’s percentage of married couple households is half what Botetourt’s is — 30%. It’s not that the bounds of holy matrimony are frayed in Roanoke, it’s just that’s where younger, single people in the Roanoke Valley tend to wind up.
That’s why we shouldn’t be surprised that the localities with the lowest rates of married households are all cities. (It’s also why we shouldn’t be surprised that cities tend to vote the way they do; single people tend to vote Democratic, married couples are more split. If Republicans want to win the Roanoke City Council, they need more married couples in the city, even though that’s not a guarantee of success — after all, check out our two most-married localities. Loudoun is quite Democratic these days, Powhatan quite Republican.)
The locality with the lowest share of married couples is Petersburg: 21% of the households there are married couples.
The next lowest is Richmond at 24%, followed by Emporia (27%) and Danville (28%).
Those four localities are the only ones in Virginia where the married-couple rate is less than 30%.
These are all cities, so the points enumerated above apply — more rental units available there than in surrounding counties. However, these four cities aren’t the same in one key way.
Richmond is one of the youngest localities in the state; Danville, Emporia and Petersburg among the oldest. Even though they are at opposite ends of the age spectrum, they wind up in the same demographic place — not a lot of married couples.
Let’s look deeper.
The nation’s median age in 2020 (the year these statistics are from) was estimated at 38.6. (The Census Bureau now says it’s up to 38.9.)
Many Virginia cities are younger than that. Richmond is 32.4. Norfolk is 31.6, Lynchburg is 31.0. College towns tend to be so young that they are almost off the scale — Harrisonburg and Radford come in at 23.5, Lexington (a two-college town) at 22.7.
Since young adults tend not to be married, a large number of young adults means the share of married couple households is lower. Viewed that way, Richmond’s low rate of married-couple households isn’t necessarily a problem. Rather, it’s a sign of demographic success: Richmond has become a magnet for young adults as a culturally hip, economically vibrant place to be.
By contrast, the median age in Petersburg is 37.0, Emporia is 40.8, Danville is 43.0. That makes Danville the second-oldest city in the state, in terms of median age. Only Martinsville, with a median age of 44.6, is older.
How do a low marriage rate and a high median age overlap? Only in sorrowful ways.
The marriage rate in these cities isn’t low because the institution has collapsed there.
These cities do have higher-than-average rates of single-parent households but those numbers have dropped dramatically in the past decade. I’ll address those in a future column. but here’s a teaser: Over the past decade, the number of single-parent households has fallen 30% in Danville, 36% in Petersburg and a staggering 42% in Emporia. The number of single-parent households in those cities may still be higher than the state average of 6.5% — in Petersburg 10% of households are single-parent households, in Danville 11% and in Emporia 12% — but they’re not the reason why the married-couple household rate is so low in those communities.
The reason the married-couple household rate is so low is a combination of two things: a growing number of widows and widowers and an overall growth in the number of people living alone, no matter their age.
In other words, these three cities are aging out.
I’m reminded of the haunting song by Jason Isbell, “If We Were Vampires”:
It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
Maybe we’ll get forty years together
But one day I’ll be gone
Or one day you’ll be gone
In Danville, Emporia and Petersburg, the biggest share of households are people living alone. Not all of those are widows or widowers but many are (all the Census Bureau can tell us is the number of people over 65 living alone, so we have to infer some things).
In Danville, 39% of the population is living alone, far more than the 28% who are in married-couple households.
In Emporia, 34% of the households are people living alone, versus 27% in married-couple households.
In Petersburg, 41% of the households are people living alone, nearly double the 22% in married-couple households.
Given the median age of these places, it’s fair to say that this is not because of young hipsters; much of this is simply people aging in place.
While these three cities stand out for the lowest married-couple rates, they’re hardly alone. We see the same phenomenon in 12 other localities — a higher percentage of households with people living alone than households with married couples.
These 12 localities break the same way that Richmond, Emporia, Danville and Petersburg do.
Seven have some of the youngest median ages in the state:
* Arlington (34.0 median age, 36% married-couple households, 39% living alone)
* Alexandria (36.5 median age, 36% married-couple households, 41% living alone)
* Charlottesville (29.5 median age, 36% married-couple households, 37% living alone)
* Fredericksburg (31.6 median age, 33% married-couple households, 36% living alone)
* Norfolk (31.6 median age, 33% married-couple households, 34% living alone)
* Radford (23.5 median age, 30% married-couple households, 37% living alone)
* Williamsburg (24.0 median age, 35% married-couple households, 38% living alone).
And then five have some of the oldest median ages:
- Martinsville (44.6 median age, 31% married-couple households, 39% living alone)
- Galax (43.9 median age, 33% married-couple households, 35% living alone)
- Hopewell (38.1 median age, 31% married-couple households, 32% living alone)
- Norton (40.7 median age, 36% married-couple households, 39% living alone)
- Roanoke (39.1 median age, 30% married-couple households, 39% living alone)
Similar statistics, but very different stories behind them — and very different futures ahead of them.
These young cities may age, or their younger occupants may get married, have kids and move out to the suburbs as so many others before them have done, with other young adults moving in behind them. Those cities may not need to do anything.
These aging cities, meanwhile, are eventually going to see a lot of houses become available because the widows and widowers living in them are going to pass on. Some of these cities already have been losing population. Without new residents moving in, they will definitely lose population in the future. Demographically, the challenge in these aging cities is to attract younger residents and hope that nature eventually takes its course. Ultimately, this is an economic issue as much as it is a demographic one or a social one: Communities with younger median ages tend to be more economically vibrant ones. Those aging communities need younger adults both to hear more wedding bells ringing — and more cash registers ringing, too.