Whether you think the situation at the southern border is an emergency or not, there’s no argument about why people are showing up there by the thousands: To our south are some countries in Central America that are essentially failed states.
This is naturally what happens when you have unsuccessful countries within walking distance of successful ones. People try to flee the former for the latter. “Voting with their feet,” as Ronald Reagan once put it. We see that in the refugees from primarily El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who are trekking north to try to get into the United States. We see that in the refugees from Africa and the Middle East who brave even greater distances — and the Mediterranean Sea — to try to get into Europe.
If you’re a successful country (economically speaking) living in relative proximity to unsuccessful ones, you attract migrants.
Likewise, there are undeniable advantages if you’re a successful country living next to an even more successful one: There’s some economic spillover. Canada, for instance, benefits from being next door to the United States. Amazon, a company spawned in Seattle, also has major offices Vancouver and Toronto, two cities whose big labor pools of software engineers make them more attractive than smaller cities in the American heartland. Amazon’s 6,000 jobs in Canada wouldn’t exist if Canada were somewhere else at a lot less convenient.
So what does all this have to do with us here in the Roanoke and New River valleys? Potentially, a lot. We’re a long way from either the Mexican or Canadian border, but these analogies might still have application for us. Here’s how.
The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia recently released a new batch of population projections — for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. They show two trends that ought to get our attention here in Virginia, especially this part of Virginia.
1. North Carolina is going to grow a whole lot faster than we are. Between 2010 and 2040, Virginia’s population is projected to grow by 23 percent. North Carolina’s is projected to grow by 33 percent. In the 2010 census, North Carolina moved up a spot to become the nation’s 10th most populous state; Virginia stayed the 12th biggest. By 2040, though, North Carolina is expected to become the 7th biggest (a position now held by Ohio), while Virginia will edge up to 11th. The gap between the two states is widening.
What will it mean for Virginia, economically, to be next door to a state that is growing much faster than we are? Before you answer that, consider the other projection that caught our eye.
2. West Virginia is one of just two states projected to lose population in the next census. Vermont is the other. Further, West Virginia is projected to lose population at an increasingly faster rate — as its population ages and there’s no economic reason to move to the Mountain State. West Virginia’s population peaked at just more than 2 million in 1950, when coal was at its height. That population has generally, but not always, declined since then. In the last census, it stood at 1,852,994. Weldon Cooper projects that population will fall to 1,661,849 by 2040 — a decline of 10 percent. By contrast, Vermont’s population is projected to decline by 3.8 percent.
This puts Virginia, especially our part of Virginia, in an interesting situation, to say the least. Just an hour or so to our south is one of the most economically robust states in the country. But next door to us to our west is a state that, economically speaking, constitutes a failed state. North Carolina is rapidly building a new economy, with Charlotte as a financial capital and Raleigh-Durham as a technology center. West Virginia is seeing its old economy disappear without any realistic hope of creating a replacement.
What does this mean for those of us in western Virginia? We mean no offense to our neighbors to the west, but being adjacent to West Virginia is not an economic advantage for us. It’s not necessarily a negative, but it’s definitely not a positive. It’s more a matter of a lost opportunity: Fewer people in West Virginia means fewer people crossing the border to do business here. (It does, though, mean that we pick up some of West Virginia’s economic refugees; only Ohio attracts more West Virginia migrants than Virginia, although their numbers are small because West Virginia is small.)
Our position relative to North Carolina is more complicated. At the present time, Virginia is losing people to North Carolina. For the past five years, more people have moved out of Virginia than have moved in; the only reason the state is still gaining population is births outnumber deaths due to a baby boom (primarily in Northern Virginia) that more than makes up the difference.
Of the Virginians moving out of state, more move to North Carolina than anywhere else. On average, that’s about 30,000 each year — the equivalent of losing all of Botetourt County one year, and all of Pulaski County the next and Floyd County and Giles County combined the year after that, and so on after that. Between 2012 and 2016, Virginians constituted the biggest group of migrants to North Carolina. In the broadest of terms, we are to North Carolina what Central America is to the United States — the main difference, of course, is that Virginia is largely exporting college-educated workers. We’re not necessarily losing jobs directly to North Carolina, but we are losing opportunities. When Advance Auto wanted to create 435 software jobs, we shouldn’t have been surprised that the company chose to create them in Raleigh and not Roanoke.
To that extent, being next door to North Carolina is a problem for us, somewhat akin to that “giant sucking sound” Ross Perot once referred to, just in a different context. The challenge for us is to make our proximity an opportunity.
A few years ago, two geographers studied the nation’s economy and, among other things, found that our part of Virginia is more closely linked economically to North Carolina than it is the rest of our own state. With Amazon coming, we are looking to Northern Virginia in hopes of trying to figure out how to spin off some of that job growth to Southwest and Southside Virginia.
Perhaps, though, we also ought to be looking to North Carolina and asking the same thing.
Or, put another way, it’s better to be Toronto than Tegucigalpa.