We hope you like numbers because we have more of them today — all courtesy of the state’s latest population estimates from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.
These may just look like numbers on a spreadsheet, but they really tell a story. OK, maybe not a story as riveting as “Game of Thrones.” There are no dragons here, but there’s plenty of life and death and general upheaval.
On Sunday, we said that both Roanoke and Roanoke County were gaining population — slowly, but still gaining. We also said they were gaining population in different ways. Here’s how:
1. Roanoke County is dying just like some counties in Southside and the far Southwest Virginia. Here’s why we say that. There are only two ways that localities gain or lose population — through people moving in or out, and through births outnumbering deaths or the other way around. Roanoke gained 2,316 — mostly through births outnumbering deaths but also through more people moving in than out. Roanoke County gained 1,429 but that was entirely due to more people moving in than out. In fact, Roanoke County saw 2,828 more people move in than out. Its population growth was only about half that. Why? Because unlike the city, which saw a small baby boom, Roanoke County is having a death boom. During the past decade, the county has seen deaths exceed births by 1,399 — a clear sign of an aging population. Now, death is a natural part of life but here’s some useful context for Roanoke County’s figures. Only five other localities in the state have a bigger deaths/births imbalance and they’re not localities Roanoke County wants to emulate.
Here’s death’s Top 10 — the number shows the number of deaths over births:
1. Henry County: 1,759
2. Tazewell County: 1,566
3. Danville: 1,556
4. Pittsylvania County: 1,551
5. Washington County: 1,474
6. Roanoke County: 1,399
7. Mecklenburg County: 1,347
8. Scott County: 1,170
9. Lancaster County: 1,072
10. Pulaski County: 1,053
If you want to really be grim, add Danville/Pittsylvania together and Henry/Martinsville together. Those two metro areas then become Virginia’s two death capitals. In the former, deaths exceed births by 3,107; in the latter, 2,643. The main difference between Roanoke County and those other death localities is that Roanoke County has enough people moving in to mask all the dying. That’s a good thing, of course. No public policy can prevent the inevitable, so we can’t fault these counties for having residents who die. What’s happening is they don’t have enough young adults getting busy, so to speak, to make up the difference — largely because they don’t have enough young adults, period. That’s because only four of these 10 counties — Washington, Roanoke, Lancaster and Pulaski — have more people moving in than out; most of them are seeing a double whammy of both an aging population dying off and living residents (often younger ones) moving away. And only one of those localities has enough people moving in that it’s still gaining population despite this large die-off: Roanoke County. Now, what we don’t know yet: Who are these people moving in? If they’re older adults, that won’t really change the trend. If it’s younger adults, then that might. That’s one reason why Roanoke County is so keen on its Reimagine 419 plan— it would love to connect the Tangelwood Mall area to downtown Roanoke to attract more younger adults. It’s also why Pulaski County would love to attract some spillover growth from Montgomery County — it very much wants to turn around decades of population decline. Pulaski doesn’t need to attract 1,053 new people to reverse death/birth ratio. It just needs 500 or so young adults — assuming then that nature takes its course. That may not be as difficult as it sounds . . .
2. Some localities in Southwest Virginia are seeing more people move in than out. Every county or city west of Radford is losing population, and those population declines are most severe in the coal counties of far Southwest Virginia. But a few are seeing net in-migration; it’s just overwhelmed by deaths outnumbering births. The net gains are sometimes quite small — a net in-migration of 65 in Wythe County, 47 in Carroll County and 15 in Washington County. Still, something is drawing people there. For localities looking to reverse demographic declines, even a small surplus in that column is an asset to build on. The west-of-Radford localities with the biggest in-migration rates are Pulaski (278) and, surprisingly, very rural Grayson County (555). Again, we don’t know what ages these people are — but it’s entirely possible that if Pulaski needs 500 or so young adults, it could be more than halfway there.
3. The problem in the coal counties is primarily an economic one. All the localities in far Southwest Virginia lost population. Buchanan County’s decline was the steepest at 11.6%; Norton’s the slowest at 2%. In each one, out-migration accounted for the vast majority of that population decline. In Wise County, 79% of the county’s population decline is due to people moving out. In Lee County, it’s 72%, in Dickenson County, 71%, in Buchanan County, just under 70%. In Norton, the figure is actually more than 100% — it’s the only locality west of Radford where births exceeded deaths. The only other places in the state where we see such high rates of out-migration driving population declines are Hampton and Petersburg. Other places losing population are usually driven by deaths outnumbering both births and new residents moving in. We can’t fully explain Hampton but Petersburg has a lot of the same economic problems that the coal counties do — the decline of traditional employers.
There are two ways to look at this. The optimistic way: If these communities could create a new economy, they wouldn’t be hemorrhaging population at such historic rates. The pessimistic way: Even if nobody moved out, they’d still be losing population because deaths exceed births everywhere except Norton. The more realistic way: If fewer young adults moved out, some of these demographic problems would take care of themselves. In any case, it all comes back to the need to find a new economy to replace coal. It’s in the coal counties that we see most clearly the devastating effects of out-migration. There’s another place in the state, though, where we see even more out-migration. We’ll look at that on Tuesday.