by James A. Bacon
A couple of weeks ago, three guys came rolling through my neighborhood in a heavy pickup truck and pitched me on cutting down some dead limbs and trees in my back yard. They lived in Rappahannock County, they said; they’d spent three hours driving to Richmond looking for work and when they finished with us would spend three hours driving home. Their routine, they said, was to hit the sack, get some sleep, and then get up early in the morning and repeat the ordeal.
The story is testimony to many things, including the lengths to which some people will go to earning a living. But it is also an example of how the workforce in lightly populated “rural” counties, where inhabitants once farmed or worked in light manufacturing, is getting sucked into the orbit of Virginia’s larger metropolitan regions.
Many commentators on urban affairs, myself included, have tended to view the steady geographic expansion of Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) as a consequence of so-called “suburban sprawl,” the pattern of low-density, hop-scotch development — urban areas pushing outward. And that remains the dominant explanation for the ever-expanding size of our MSAs. But Hamilton Lombard, writing in the StatChat blog, notes that there’s more to the story:
Workers in “rural” counties are commuting to metropolitan areas in search of work: “Agricultural employment declined in nearly every rural U.S. county, while manufacturing jobs in most small towns also began to disappear by the 1980s. The result of these two trends has been that residents in most rural counties have grown more dependent on nearby cities for jobs. … In many rural counties … the proportion of workers commuting to a nearby city has risen above a quarter of all workers, causing counties to become part of another city’s metropolitan area.
In Virginia, the portion of commuters who traveled over an hour each way to work rose from 6.5 percent in 1990 to 10 percent in 2014. But in rural areas that are within commuting distance of city centers, the percent of residents who drove over 60 minutes to get to work often doubled or tripled in the same period. In some counties on the edges of large metro areas, such as Warren County, Virginia, located 70 miles west of Washington DC, it is common for between a quarter and a third of residents to commute more than an hour to get to work.
As an example, Lombard points to Floyd County, which was incorporated into the Blacksburg MSA in 2013. The 20th century saw the transformation of Floyd’s economic base from agriculture to manufacturing, and then the hollowing out of manufacturing. But the growth of Virginia Tech and Radford Universities created jobs for Floyd residents willing to make the commute. As a bedroom community, Floyd’s population has rebounded to levels last seen in 1900, .
Given this analysis, the hollowing out of Virginia’s “rural” economy is even worse than it appears from traditional unemployment figures. An increasing number of Virginians outside the metropolitan areas stay employed by commuting long distances to wherever they can find jobs.