Over the past decade, which locality in Virginia has seen more people move out than any other?
You might think Buchanan County, which has seen the largest rate of population decline — 11.6% since 2010.
You’d be wrong, though. Beware! Statistics at work!
Buchanan has seen the largest population declines on a percentage basis. We certainly don’t want to diminish the impact of that county’s population declines. From a high of 37,989 in 1980, Buchanan’s population is now down to 21,295, according to the latest population estimates from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. Buchanan, like many rural counties, is being hollowed out — its rate of decline is simply faster than all the others.
The question we asked, though, looks simple but is actually something of trick question.
During the past decade, Buchanan has seen its population decline by 2,803 people — but not all of that was a result of people moving out. According to the UVA estimates — which constitute official estimates the state uses for all sorts of planning and budgetary purposes — Buchanan actually saw 1,956 people move out. The difference between the two numbers is a matter of life and death, quite literally. Buchanan saw deaths outnumber births by 847.
That gets us closer to revealing the key part of the question we posed. It’s the part about which locality has seen more people move out than any other. The answer to that question is one you might not expect. It’s Fairfax County. Yes, that Fairfax County.
During the past decade, it’s estimated that 29,661 more people moved out of Fairfax County than moved in. That certainly defies popular belief, but there it is. During the past decade Fairfax County saw a net out-migration equivalent to all of the people in Wythe County packing up and moving out. Indeed, more people moved out of Fairfax County than moved out of the all the coal counties put together – indeed, more than 2.6 times more than moved out of every locality west of the New River. So why aren’t we talking about the economic demise of Fairfax County the way we bemoan the fortunes of Southwest Virginia?
Despite that net loss of people moving out, Fairfax County has still seen its population grow by 5.7% during the past decade — which in Fairfax’s case means an increase of 61,829 people. How can this be? Because Fairfax County has a baby boom going on. During the past decade, births outnumbered deaths by 91,490 — that’s almost as many babies as Roanoke has people of all ages. That’s one consequence of a much younger population. It’s also why Fairfax County — like other localities in Northern Virginia — is busy building new schools and expanding existing ones. Demographics, the saying goes, are destiny, and its Northern Virginia’s destiny to be building a lot of new schools for the foreseeable future. Those are the kind of demographics that drive government spending and make headlines. However, what about all those people who are moving out of Fairfax County? They don’t attract nearly as much attention but their departure raises other policy questions that Virginia is wrestling with. Just why are so many people moving out of the state’s economic engine? That’s actually part of a bigger question: Why are so many people moving out of Virginia, period?
The latest population estimates that were recently released include this very notable statistic: For the past six years, more people have moved out of Virginia than have moved in. The federal government started compiling those domestic migration statistics in the 1970s — based on where people file their tax returns. Through all that time, Virginia has always been a net gainer of people. Now it’s a net loser. The main reason Virginia is still gaining population that there’s a baby boom all across Northern Virginia — nearly half the state’s population growth since 2010 is due to births outnumbering deaths in the D.C. suburbs.
So why are so many people moving out of Virginia? The IRS tells us the two biggest groups are ages 25 to 35 and ages 55 to 65 — young families and early retirees. The latter tend to be snowbirds moving south; Florida is one of the big gainers of those former Virginians. What about the former? That’s where we find a political answer. “For much of the 2010s, economic growth in the DC area has lagged the rest of the U.S., in part due to the federal budget sequestration,” the Weldon Cooper Center tells us. It’s notable that the other Virginia localities that have seen net out-migration are also communities with a large military economy. Norfolk has seen 13,060 more people move out than in; Virginia Beach, 12,570; Newport News, 11,701. Put another way, the state’s two biggest metros — Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads — have seen their big economic driver slow down. Seen in that light, we shouldn’t be surprised that people have moved out in search of jobs elsewhere. That whole GO Virginia economic development initiative that probably makes your eyes glaze over whenever we write about? That was created in direct response to these trends — to create a bigger private-sector economy in Virginia so we’re not so dependent on federal spending. That’s why Virginia’s political leaders were so thrilled to land Amazon.
There are other repercussions to this out-migration. “In 2010, 10 of the 15 counties with the highest median household incomes in the U.S. were located in the Washington D.C. area,” the Weldon Cooper Center says. “By 2018, the number of D.C. area counties that were among the top 15 wealthiest U.S. counties had fallen to five as an increasing number of residents moved out of the region to other states.” Why does that matter? Consider this: Virginia’s state government pays most of the costs for rural schools, and the state’s biggest single source of tax revenue is the state income tax. The fewer rich people there are to tax, the fewer tax revenues there are available to distribute our way. Call that “trickle down” if you want, but that’s how the math works.
And then there’s this: “As more of Virginia’s population lives in Northern Virginia, the commonwealth will likely need to become more used to booms and busts in population growth.” Think about it this way: We in this part of Virginia are worried about rural counties losing population, but we also need to be concerned about those people moving out of Fairfax County, too, because that’s where a lot of our school funding comes from.