Virginia’s Disruptive Demographic Shifts

Graphic credit: StatChat

 by James A. Bacon

Population growth in Virginia in the 2010s so is slower than at any time since the 1920s, when African-Americans were fleeing Jim Crow conditions for economic opportunity in northern states, according to this chart published by Hamilton Lombard on the StatChat blog. Will the slowdown continue, or is it temporary — an artifact of a slow economic recovery that can be expected to resume in future  years?

The issue is of more than academic importance. Multibillions of dollars in infrastructure investments are predicated upon the proposition that Virginia’s population and economy will continue growing at historical rates. If the population doesn’t grow, projected demand for highways, mass transit, water & sewer, electricity and other utilities go up in smoke.

Another confounding question: Insofar as growth does occur, where will it occur — on the metropolitan periphery, as in the past, or in the urban core? Another chart by Lombard shows how dramatically the trend lines have shifted. Has state and local government begun correcting for these shifts, or is everyone flying on auto-pilot, assuming that past trends will continue forever? Just asking.

Graphic credit: StatChat
Graphic credit: StatChat

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14 responses to “Virginia’s Disruptive Demographic Shifts”

  1. I’ve come to believe that whether it’s Weldon Cooper or the Census folks – there is a certain amount of hocus pocus in the way they go about their population projections – and it often distills down to looking at past rates to forecast the future.

    In terms of geographic allocation of population – and jobs – I can’t even call it hocus pocus… it’s at best a black art – and a quite disreputable one at that.

  2. Tysons Engineer Avatar
    Tysons Engineer

    A caveat in the form of “numbers can lie” Virginia’s statistics on “cities” is a bit dubious because they don’t consider urban areas cities necessarily. I’ve seen lots of Virginia Cities, for instance Lexington, that would be consider rural country side in non-city Tysons for instance, or Fair Lakes, etc.

    I’m wondering if the discrepancy in county versus city would be even more prominent if Fairfax as a whole was included in the city category. Honest question, I have no idea how it would shift it, but I do know that the numbers can be deceiving when it comes to Virginia “cities”

    1. If you “defined” an urban area in terms of density and other urban attributes and then mapped Virginia – what would it look like with the new boundaries?

      Fairfax would look very different I suspect … with dozens/hundreds of urban “pods” with low density stuff surrounding them.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        I think you are correct about what Fairfax County would look like. Probably Arlington also.

        Fairfax County is not a city. Cities are defined in the Virginia Code, and Fairfax County is not one. I suspect it will never become a city because cities are responsible for local roads. On the current BoS, only John Cook favors taking over local roads. While the new 2016 BoS will look different from the current one, I don’t see the Supervisors ever wanting responsibility for local roads. FC DOT and Department of Finance have estimated taking over local roads, with funding from VDOT, would require an extra two or three cents on the real estate tax for maintenance. With flat commercial real estate growth projected this coming year and last, proposing to raise taxes an extra two to three cents seems like a way to loose an election.

        I predict Fairfax County will stay as it is – a suburban county with areas of urban density and semi-rural communities for the foreseeable future.

        Counties in rural areas loosing population should be pushed to consolidate into larger combined counties to reduce their operating costs. State aid should be adjusted to provide an incentive for consolidation. They should start with their schools.

        1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

          oops “losing population”

          1. re: Consolidation for rural… that’s a hard row to hoe because that would submerge the sense of place, the local identity for some places…

            but I sort of agree – but would encourage it statewide by screwing with the school SOQ money that would incentivize regional approaches..

        2. re: healthcare propping up the local rural economy.

          that’s why turning down the MedicAid Expansion was so dumb.

          Not only would it have helped folks Health Care in rural Va – it would have provided jobs..for health care workers – to employ some of the young growing up there … to go to Community College and get health tech certificates and such.

          and the heck of it is – that the funds that would have paid for this – are already being collected – much like we pay taxes on gasoline and the money comes back as highways and jobs building/maintaining highways.. we would be getting the money back – we pay in taxes – to boost our own economy and provide health care to folks who don’t have much.

          The same thing happens with Medicare. Folks in rural Va pay 105.00 a month and many get way more back in medical care… which – provides jobs also.

          if you take a look at most rural areas – the things that generate spending are health care, public safety and schools and it’s almost like a barter system where the deputy gets paid by the taxes the doctor pays and the deputy pays taxes to fund the schools, etc… and the teacher helps to pay for the post office… and social services, etc. a semi-closed system.

          for many of these rural areas – they are lucky to have additional jobs that do not provide local services.. like a manufacturer or farms that sell food to cities, etc.

  3. Agreed, there are major problems comparing “cities” and “counties.” The leveling off of “county” growth rates lumps declining Southside and SW Virginia counties which are *losing* population with urban counties like Arlington and Fairfax. It would be more useful to compare cities, urbanized counties, suburban counties, exurban counties and rural counties. It would be even more useful to isolate urbanizing sections of counties for separate analysis.

    But we have what have.

  4. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    The bigger question is: What is the state going to do with Southside and Southwest?

    Right now, the Urban Crescent is subsidizing those areas. And yet the population continues to decline in SW/Southside. At what point are policymakers going to grapple with this issue?

    If you believe in Mr. Bacon’s main theses: A.) 21st century economic growth is about the large urbanized area with greater amounts of education; and B.) Policy should work on fostering density…….then the massive transfers of wealth that go to SW/Southside for schools and transportation are a complete waste of state resources.

    I tend to agree with Mr. Bacon’s theses. But I look at that ruby red House, and I predict we will see actual wealth redistribution (as opposed to the ridiculous arguments by the GOP at the federal level against Obama) continue from the Urban Crescent to Southside/Southwest for decades to come. If you want “socialism” and “communism”…..go take a look at how much some of those Southside/SW counties contribute in state taxes and just how much they take from the state in appropriations……

  5. Tysons Engineer Avatar
    Tysons Engineer

    @Cville, they could begin with bringing rail back in a big way to the corridor, possibly attract manufacturing industry (we do afterall have cheap energy relative to most places on east coast), and better leverage the tech corridor between Cville->Roanoke and Blacksburg.

    Or they can just continue divisive social issues voting patterns that run off any and all younger generations

    Things they should be marketing

    1) Freight/Rail access
    2) Cheap land
    3) Cheap housing and therefore lower wages needed to attract employees
    4) access to very good technology research cores

    Basically, they should be doing what Provo has been doing for a decade. But by all means, let’s just keep hanging our hats on the dying dinosaur that is the coal industry and scoffing the benefits of urbanized small cities.

    They need the equivalent of an FCEDA to actually do research/good infographics about these benefits so that they can court companies who may be weary of the sunbelt and are looking for a good market with direct access to the mid-atlantic

    Some might see that as Richard Florida kool-aid, but atleast strive for something instead of being content letting your population die off and not replacing them with the things new generations are looking for. That’s called stagnation… that’s worse than trying and maybe not getting everything you wanted.

    1. Here’s a (the?) issue for Southwest Virginia and Southside (and really any low cost rural area).

      You need to focus on growth in the tradable sector. At most these counties see some growth in the non-tradable sector, primarily health care and other support services for their aging populations. That’s not a foundation for long term economic viability.

      So why don’t you see more manufacturing and other tradable industries locating to these low-wage, low-cost of living areas?

      Ryan Avent has argued ( that government transfers, like Social Security and Medicare, actually prop up the wages in these areas more than they should be, bidding up the cost of living by propping up the local economies. These areas have lower wages than Northern Virginia, but not low enough to make sense for locating industries there versus taking a bet on a place like China or Southeast Asia.

      We’ve seen the failures of trying to draw new industries into these areas. The Tobacco Commission is a crony handout. The best we can do is focus on quality education in these areas so everyone has the opportunity to pursue their dreams.

  6. Do we have (or can we create) SMSA aggregations of these data for the purpose of regional comparisons within VA? The Virginia political jurisdictional breakdowns just don’t lend themselves to answers.

    1. let’s see. Since RoVa tends to vote Red – it’s perfect symmetry as to policy -right?


  7. I know this is blasphemous but most kids in SW and Southside have normal IQs and can learn… and for that matter inner-city kids – ditto.

    so Virginia does have a choice and it’s pretty simple.

    pay for education or pay for entitlements.

    pick your poison. forget your ideology.

    You want the kids in rural Va to leave and go to where the jobs are but if they do not have a decent education – they’re going to end up on entitlements – whether they stay in rural Va or go to NoVa.. either way – the outcome is the same.

    I’m constantly amazed that people are passionate about the education of their own kids – they KNOW how important it is for their kids future but when it comes to other folks kids – it’s like they don’t care – even though in the end – their own kids are going to grow up paying entitlements for the kids that don’t get educated.

    this stuff all circles back on us… and yet, for some reason we don’t deal with it in a rational way…

    All of Europe and Japan, Asia have figured this out.. but in this country when it comes to education and health care -we’ve collectively swallowed stupid pills. It’s NOT that we have a demonstrated better solution – one that works – much less superior to the rest of the world. Instead, we’re twisting in the wind… and cannot agree on how to proceed…

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