Is Virginia’s Population Growth Slowing?

by James A. Bacon

The 2011 U.S. Census numbers are in, and the Brookings Institution is on top of them. The big story: Population growth continued decelerating across the United States and in Virginia, although the Old Dominion is still growing more rapidly than the national average.

Brookings attributes the decline to several factors: weak immigration, a downturn in fertility and the passage of Bay Boomers out of their child-bearing years. The aging of the Boomers is irreversible. However, the dip in immigration and fertility could be temporary, related to the economic downturn. Fewer immigrants are coming to the U.S. because they see less economic opportunity, while women are deferring child-bearing until economic prospects improve. Giving credence to this interpretation, the chart below shows that the decline began around 2006-2007, more or less when the recession began.

Annual Growth Rates by Census Region, 2001-2011. Credit: Brookings Institution.
Annual Growth Rates by Census Region, 2001-2011. Credit: Brookings Institution.

However, the fit is less than perfect. For starters, the recession didn’t begin until 2007. The downturn in population growth preceded it. Moreover, the Northeast saw a significant uptick in population growth through 2009, defying the economic downturn. Recession is at best a partial explanation. Another reason may be stronger economic growth and an increasing in economic opportunity in countries, most notably Mexico, that accounted for most immigrants. As I have suggested in an earlier blog post, the 1990s-2000s immigrant surge may have peaked and may be undergoing a long-term hiatus.

As for Virginia, the Old Dominion has never been a top-tier growth state. Although we are lumped in with the “South” and population growth has exceeded that of the Northeast and Midwest, we never kept pace with Texas, Florida or North Carolina. While Virginia ranked as the 15th fastest-growing state in 2010-11, according to Brookings numbers, compared to 2005-2006, our growth rate has fallen faster than the national average. Admittedly, the picture is complicated: Population growth in Virginia actually increased through 2009-10 before plunging last year.

I would hypothesize that the population growth was concentrated in Northern Virginia, which benefited from an unprecedented level of federal deficit spending, hiring and outsourcing to contractors. As the stimulus package petered out in the last year, so did some of the economic impetus for economic growth. Federal spending cannot possibly continue growing at the same rate as the past few years, so that economic prop for Northern Virginia population growth is likely to disappear.

Brookings frets about the slowdown in population growth from a national economic perspective. Fewer people in the workforce means slower economic growth and fewer taxpayers to support an aging population. Both are valid concerns. The picture is more mixed from a state-local perspective, however.

Fewer people equals reduced growth pressure — fewer houses to build, fewer schools, fewer roads, less infrastructure — in Virginia’s fast-growth counties. As the state and counties plan for future growth, there is a temptation to rely upon  population projections extrapolated from past trends. But if immigration is slowing, women are having fewer babies and the population is growing older, those projections may not pan out.

It’s certainly too early on the basis of a single year’s spectacular fall-off in Virginia population growth to draw firm conclusions. But the trend bears watching. The last thing we need to do in an era of constrained public finances is over-invest in transportation and other infrastructure based on projections that never materialize.

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7 responses to “Is Virginia’s Population Growth Slowing?”

  1. Nothing of value can be learned from an analysis of statistics at the state level. The Commonwealth of Virginia is an arbitrary land mass with boundaries drawn by factors are diverse as the British Crown and the US Civil War. It is an accident of history with wildly different people pursuing wildly different approaches to everything.

    Ed Risse always had this right – if you want to understand anything of value, the first step is to give up the arbitrary geographic divisions that define the legal boundaries of the United States.

    Arguing about transportation investments by reviewing state-wide statistics is the height of statistical illiteracy.

  2. while it’s true that the boundaries are arbitrarily drawn… it’s also true that those boundaries are thoroughly embedded in how we do planning and funding and thus to ignore them or dismiss them …just further separates you from things that will happen with or without your involvement.

    for instance, how much money NoVa gets for transportation and education – for better or worse has everything to do with how many people live within those boundaries – no matter how they originally got drawn.

    To a certain extent, the Census folks DO recognize that boundaries are artifacts when they come up with their own boundaries for MSAs – which in turn have impacts on MPOs and to a lesser extent on Virginia’s planning districts…and VDOT’s administrative districts ( two more …with arbitrarily drawn borders – but better connected to contemporary regions.

    Whether we like it or not – Richmond allocates money based on boundaries and more than just the ones drawn by Royalty.

    Jim Bacon is right about those projections though.

    Whether it is the Census folks or the Virginia-based [Weldon] Cooper Center, they seem to rely on past rates of growth to project future rates of growth as if nothing really can change it.

    And I’m of the view that there are fundamental changes underway that make the business of projecting future growth, not only population, but economic/job growth – a much riskier business.

    and that can affect everything from projected school enrollment to capital facilities expansion to ..even HOT Lanes – much infrastructure – long timeframe planning.. based on certain assumptions about future growth.

    so the boundaries.. in many respects ..artifacts.. but .. they still are used and still determine planning and funding.

  3. I agree with Groveton that state-level statistics are useless for understanding what’s happening at the metropolitan level. That’s why my comments were very general and suggestive of the need for further analysis. The aggregate state-level data suggest that *something* is changing down in the metro-level data. We just need to dig deeper to find out what. Please note that I framed my speculation about NoVa population trends as a hypothesis, awaiting confirmation from more detailed data from Census.

    Speaking in generalities, Larry G. is also correct. A lot rides on the Census projections, and whether they turn out to overshoot or undershoot the mark.

  4. just FYI – most metro areas – even smaller ones like the Fredericksburg Area have an MPO – a metropolitan policy organization – a Federally-mandated critter (the NoVa one is MWCOG/TBP) whose primary role is to document/coordinate all transportation funding and planning within their designated area and a primary work products are fiscally-constrained short term and long term transportation plans.

    these plans cannot have any more projects that there is identified funding for – so it forces regional prioritization of transportation projects.

    these MPOs are somewhat loosely organized in terms of geography but they generally are however many local jurisdictions that the Census People recognize as a MSA – Metropolitan Statistic Area.

    but… the fly in the ointment… is that the long range plan is based on Census population projections… 25-year look-aheads.

    it used to be that you could look back at 10, 20 years and then use that rate of growth to look ahead.

    but there are clear signs that – that approach may no longer be trustworthy.

    but there’s an even bigger problem and that is trying to predict within a given area HOW growth will occur because it does not occur uniformly anyhow.

    my point here.. is that real decisions about funding and planning on based on growth projections… and it’s never been a particularly accurate process at the lower granular levels anyhow.

    finally – the aggregate state level data… does that mean that the data is truly aggregated from various regions within the state?

    chicken? egg?

  5. I agree that, for many issues, an MSA or other regional grouping is more relevant than state boundaries. I suppose that’s why government and business entities often work on those non-state levels. However, short of another Civil War, it’s as unlikely the state boundaries will change as it is that a person can change their biological ancestors.
    Even if there were proposals to change state boundaries or create new “state equivalents,” I don’t think finding consensus would easily occur. Let’s look at combining parts of NoVA, Suburban Maryland and the District. Some might agree, but many others would likely object. I know quite a few people who live in the District or Maryland who would not want to be connected with Virginia. And vice versa. Where would the boundaries be drawn? Which laws would apply? Right-to-work? Adequate public facilities laws? Tax rates? Boundary lines; who is in; who is out?
    This reminds me of an old college professor of mine. He always said government at the state and local levels is largely about muddling through.

  6. Groveton Avatar

    The problems with state-level government are obvious. The answer is to lessen the level of power held by the state and give more to the localities. However, the same jack wagons who have established a primary system where neither Newt Gingrich nor Rick Perry can appear on the ballot don’t like that idea. They like spoon feeding the sheeple their answers.

    Of the three levels of government which apply directly to me – federal, state and local – the state is the most corrupt and the least competent.

    Reconfiguring the state boundaries will have to wait for Boomergeddon. However, diluting Dillon’s Rule in Virginia can happen now.

  7. Groveton, I puzzle over why you believe local government in Virginia would make better decisions than state government. On one level, I would agree local government is closer to the people than state or, yikes, federal government. But when one bores down, one quickly finds that the root cause of Virginia’s transportation problems lies with local government approving more new development than the existing or likely to-be-built roads can handle. Even in a strong property rights state like Virginia, there is no obligation on the part of local government to adopt new Comp Plans or grant rezoning when the changes would overburden local streets, roads and transit. Additionally, the law allowed local government to negotiate for proffers that would fund the additional burdens placed on transportation facilities and even to refuse to grant any zoning relief when a developer refuses to address those burdens. Yet, as we all know, year after year after year, local governments in Virginia, most especially Fairfax County, adopted Comp Plan revisions and granted rezonings that allowed transportation-crushing building and failed to collect fair and adequate proffers to fix the crushing new demand.
    Giving local government full home rule seems to me to be similar to taking off the speed governors on the car rides for kids in Disney World.
    I also see the reluctance of counties to take over their local roads as strong evidence that the various supervisors like things largely as they are. The separation of power and responsibility.
    In any event, Happy New Year to all!

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