We’ve collected all our coverage of Virginia’s demographic changes here.
The pandemic was good for much of rural America.
It wasn’t good healthwise, of course. Death rates in rural areas were consistently higher than in urban areas for much of the pandemic — a combination of lower vaccination rates, fewer health care providers and an older (and therefore more vulnerable) population.
However, in an “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” moment, the pandemic turned to be an economic boon for many rural areas.
Throughout the pandemic, we often heard anecdotal accounts of people moving out of urban areas and into rural ones. Then came documented census evidence of that. In Virginia, the pandemic helped accelerate trends that were already underway: Much of Northern Virginia is now losing population because more people are moving out than moving in. Much of rural Virginia is now just the opposite — more people are moving in than moving out (although in many localities the overall population is still declining because, with aging populations, deaths outnumber both numbers and the net gains from in-migration).
Now comes the evidence that this pandemic-era migration has been good for rural areas, economically speaking. The Washington-based Economic Innovation Group, which describes itself as a “bipartisan public policy organization,” has crunched two years of tax data from the Internal Revenue Service, 2020 and 2021. Those results show that during the pandemic the exodus of people from big metros to rural areas and smaller metros meant a lot of new income flowed into those smaller communities. Large urban areas across the country saw their adjusted gross income fall by more than $68 billion, and “rural counties benefited most from the outflow of earnings from major cities.”
If you’re a minimum-wage worker in one of those rural areas, what does it matter to you whether some rich person from some big city moved in? Admittedly, that may not benefit you directly, but it does indirectly — if their increased spending power now flows through a rural economy, helping to keep open or expand local businesses. My impression, from nearly a lifetime of living in rural areas, is that these impacts are easier to see in rural areas than bigger communities. In a place the size of Roanoke, the cause-and-effect of new people with more spending money is sometimes hard to see, but in a rural community, it’s much easier to understand why the restaurant that once was teetering on the brink now seems to be flourishing.
Let’s delve deeper into these figures.
First, let’s look at a straight-up comparison of the income of those who moved out during the pandemic and those who moved in.
There were, to be sure, some rural areas that saw income losses but those were generally economically distressed counties anyway — southern West Virginia, for instance. The most dramatic drops, however, came in urban areas. In New York, the average drop in income — between those moving out and those moving in — was $115,600 per household. In San Francisco, it was $105,900. The biggest gains also came in urban areas, just different ones. In Collier County, Florida (Naples), newcomers brought in an average of $207,100 more per household than those who were leaving. In Dade County, Florida (Miami), the difference was $162,000 per household. South Florida has been growing for a long time, though, so these numbers shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise. The overall economy has been tilting toward the Sunbelt for a long time.
For our purposes, let’s focus on Virginia. More communities gained income through migration than lost it. The ones that lost were mostly in affluent Northern Virginia. Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax County, Fairfax city, Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park all lost income through migration. So did outlying localities such as Spotsylvania County and Fredericksburg to the south and Clarke County to the west. To cite just one example: In Arlington County, those leaving made $121,000; those moving in made $97,300.
Richmond and Henrico County lost income. So did most of Hampton Roads. So did Lynchburg, the Roanoke Valley, Montgomery County and Radford, plus some of the counties in Virginia’s southwestern corner (more economically similar to southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky) and some scattered other localities. The chart above is interactive so click on a locality and see the stats for yourself.
A definitional note: This study focused on income gains and losses through migration. It’s possible that a locality might have lost income through migration but still gained income overall. Imagine a mythical community with a population of two: Alice, who made $100,000, moved out, and Betty, who makes $50,000, moved in, for a net loss of $50,000 through migration. However, Cheryl stayed and her income grew by $75,000 so the locality’s overall income grew by $25,000. In general, though, most of us don’t see big income jumps like that unless we win the lottery, so the swapping of Betty’s incoming income for Alice’s departing income becomes more important to the overall economy. Hence, this study.
Anyway, look who gained income through migration. The biggest gains fall into two general categories: localities along or near the Blue Ridge Mountains in the west and localities along the Chesapeake Bay. The lone exception: Goochland County west of Richmond.
There are several ways to slice this data.
The locality that saw an influx of the most affluent newcomers was Goochland County. Those moving out averaged $108,100 per year while those moving in averaged $143,600.
The locality that saw the biggest income gap between leavers and comers was Highland County. Those moving out averaged $66,600; those moving in averaged $112,000 — a difference of $45,000. In a small county such as Highland, the actual numbers of people aren’t big; the IRS counted a net gain of 36 tax returns. However, in Highland, with a population of less than 3,000, picking up a net gain of 36 tax filers — with an average income of $112,000 — is consequential.
These mountain localities that saw such an influx of big earners and the bay localities that saw the same phenomenon may have very different topographies but they have one thing very much in common: a good quality of life, especially for remote workers who really like the “remote” part of that phrase.
We don’t know that all these newcomers are remote workers — some could be retirees, some could be working in conventional jobs — but we suspect that many of them are. This data would seem to validate those localities that are putting an emphasis on trying to attract remote workers. Indeed, it’s interesting to compare these income figures with the last data we had on remote workers. That data is pre-pandemic so has surely changed, but even before the pandemic we saw two clusters of remote workers in the state: along the mountains and along the bay. This all seems to fit together.
There’s another way to look at this data, so the number-crunchers at the Economic Innovation Group did. That’s to look at the localities where this change in income via migration had the biggest impact.
The patterns look much the same but we see some subtle differences.
The single biggest impact of newcomers’ income is in Highland County, where the overall income increased by 13% due to in-migration. The second biggest is in Northumberland County – 11.3% of what was there before. The third biggest is in Louisa County — 10.1%. (I recently spoke with a county official in Louisa who said during the pandemic a lot of people moved out of Northern Virginia into lake houses along Lake Anna).
Usually, we’re zooming in to look at localities in detail. Here let’s do the reverse, and zoom out. If we do that and look at the dark blue areas — where the income growth has been the biggest — you’ll see some definite “hot spots” across the country. It’s not quite as clear-cut a picture as we might think. The mountain west is a big income growth zone. So is the Texas triangle between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. So is Florida, and the whole Southeast coast. So is almost all of Tennessee — but so are parts of northern New England and northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Our income growth zones aren’t quite as concentrated as theirs but we do have an emerging one that starts in the exurbs of Northern Virginia and then tracks down the Blue Ridge all the way to the state line.
For all those localities, blue on the map is the equivalent of extra “green” in the community. The question now is what happens to it.
Virginia’s early voting trends
I also write a weekly political newsletter, West of the Capital, that goes out every Friday afternoon. It’s available free; you can sign up here. This week I’ll have an update on the latest early voting trends.