Every locality west of the New River, and virtually all those in Southside Virginia, are losing population.
Meanwhile, all those localities lag behind both state and national averages when it comes to the percentage of the working-age population with a college degree. In both Southwest and Southside, the figure is 15.5% (and in a few localities dips into the single-digits). The national average is 34% and runs as high as 74% in Falls Church. At a time when the economy is demanding a workforce with more education, Southwest and Southside are at a distinct economic disadvantage.
You’d think then that the number one priority of elected officials in those regions would be changing those two facts — to figure out ways to reverse the region’s population decline and to create a better-educated workforce.
Why then are some legislators so afraid of one obvious solution?
This week, the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission — in charge of using the state’s portion of the 1990s tobacco settlement to create a new economy in former tobacco-growing counties — meets in Danville. On the agenda is a proposal to pay off student loan debt for certain people willing to live in those counties for at least two years.
The details vary: For recent college graduates in such in-demand jobs — science and math teachers, for instance, or industrial and electrical engineers — the commission would pay $24,000 over two years. For health care jobs, $140,000 over four years. There are some other conditions, but that’s not what we’re focused on. Instead, we’re focused on the obvious reluctance of some legislators to embrace this program because — shudder — it might involve new people moving into the region.
“The concept is what I don’t like,” Del. Tommy Wright, R-Lunenburg County, told the commission’s education committee last week. “I’d rather we take the money we’ve got and spend it in the footprint on people that are already here, try to lift them up . . .I think what we’re getting into now is bringing people in from other parts of the state and that’s more or less giving up.”
Is it? Let’s look at the demographic realities, which come courtesy of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.
The commission’s footprint covers 40 localities. Of those, 34 are losing population. The six exceptions are on the outskirts of Lynchburg (Bedford County, Campbell County and Appomattox County) and Richmond (Amelia County and Dinwiddie County) and Roanoke (Floyd County). And some of those are not gaining population by much.
Wright’s desire to focus on “people that are already here” is understandable, but insufficient. That sentiment will not change the economic trajectory of those localities. They will continue to lose population.
How do we know that their populations will continue to decline? Look at the numbers behind those population losses. Localities lose people in only two ways —they either die or move away. Southwest and Southside Virginia suffer from both maladies.
Here’s the unhappy reality: Even if everybody who moved out suddenly moved back in, these localities would still lose population because so many people are dying. This is an essential demographic fact that elected officials need to confront.
We should also add this: One reason that so many people are dying is that population in Southwest and Southside is, relatively speaking, old and getting older. It’s the young adults who have left but even bringing back all the local young adults (or even adults of any age) won’t be enough to reverse the population decline. To do that, these localities will need new people from somewhere — anywhere.
Let’s be more specific. Take Wright’s home county of Lunenburg. Since 2010, the population there has declined by 678 people — 488 moved out and deaths outnumbered births by 190. This gives a good sense of the magnitude of the problem, because Lunenburg is a small county, but these are still big numbers. How do you persuade 488 people to move back? And even if you did, where would the other 190 come from? Realistically, of course, not all 488 of those people who left are moving back. So if Lunenburg County wants to reverse its population decline, it needs to be attracting people from somewhere — a lot more. So what’s so bad about “bringing people in from other parts of the state”? Why is that a problem and not a policy goal?
Now let’s add two more statistics: Lunenburg’s median age is significantly higher than both the state and national medians. It’s 44.4, up from 43 in 2010. By contrast, Arlington is 33.8, and going down. Lunenburg, though, is getting older, so don’t count on a local baby boom to turn around the population trends. Lunenburg also has one of the least-educated workforces in not just the state, but the whole nation. Only 10.6% of working-age adults there have a college degree.
How, exactly, does Wright propose to change any of these trends? If Lunenburg wants to reverse its population decline and its economic fortunes — perhaps that’s a big “if” right there —it’s going to need new people, younger people, and more educated people. Here’s a way from the tobacco commission to fix three of those things at once. Why is Wright against that? What’s his plan? Why does it matter that some people who benefit might be “from other parts of the state”? It’s actually Lunenburg County — or other localities across Southwest and Southside —that would benefit economically from their presence. Feel free to quibble with the details of the proposed plan, but as a general concept, why is paying off college loan debt such a bad idea? Lots of community groups give scholarships to high school seniors going off to college even if they never intend to return. This doesn’t seem different philosophically, just chronologically.
Wright’s a Republican, as are all the legislators from the tobacco commission footprint. But this isn’t a partisan issue. The loan program is modeled after one in Kansas that was created by Republican legislators. And other Republican legislators — we’re thinking of the ones from far Southwest Virginia — have shown some urgency and creativity in addressing their twin economic and demographic problems. You can argue, if you want, that they should be doing more, but you can’t accuse them of inaction. Meanwhile, Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County, said she echoed Wright’s comments and wondered if this program would be enough to persuade someone to move to rural Virginia.
Now, that feels like giving up.