One of the central organizing principles for Cardinal News is to cover the economy of Southwest and Southside – and the efforts in many communities to build a new economy after the decline or sometimes death of traditional employers. This leads me to write a lot of columns about population growth, or the lack thereof.
One of those columns recently prompted this email from a reader: “Why is almost everyone obsessed with the need to grow? Shouldn’t a population be appropriate in size for its economic and natural environment? I agree with Edward Abbey who said: ‘Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.’ What is the pay off; just more money? Maybe the areas of Va. that are losing population should downsize their schools and other infrastructure to fit the population. A lower population density and cost of living, might be attractive to stressed-out remote workers who now live in high population areas.”
These are good questions, so let’s try to answer them.
The first question – “Why is almost everyone obsessed with the need to grow?” – is the easiest to answer. Judging from the 2000 census, almost all of Southwest and Southside, outside the New River-to-Roanoke Valley-to Lynchburg metro corridor along U.S. 460, lost population. Many of those localities have been losing population for decades, so talk of “growth” there is a relative thing. Those localities could grow, in the sense of adding population, and still be smaller than they once were. Hold that thought – we’ll return to this point.
The problem of a declining population should be obvious: Retail businesses have fewer customers and sometimes go kaput. Other businesses face a shrinking labor pool, which makes it harder for them to stay in business. That shrinking labor pool also makes it less likely that new employers will move in; who wants to locate somewhere where it’s hard to find workers? That, in turn, prompts people to move out in search of better job opportunities. Set enough of these things in motion and eventually you have a death spiral.
Of course, there are problems with too much population growth, too. Those aren’t problems we tend to have in this part of Virginia, but they clearly exist elsewhere and I don’t know anybody who would like to have them here.
However, even a community where there’s neither population growth nor population decline isn’t quite as stable as it may seem on the surface. People are always moving in and out, and the age cohorts of the local population are always changing – some people die, some people get born, the ones in between get older.
Let’s look at the localities in Virginia that in the 2020 census showed the least population change:
Campbell County +1.56%
Botetourt County +1.35%
Floyd County +1.29%
Accomack County +0.75%
Buena Vista -0.14%
Rappahannock County -0.34%
Northampton County -0.86%
Page County -1.39%
Washington County -1.71%
Buckingham County -1.88%
By this lineup, Buena Vista is the least-changing locality in the state. But that doesn’t mean nothing is changing there. We’re told not to pay too much attention to year-by-year changes but from the 2020 census count to the 2021 census population estimates, Buena Vista has become slightly younger – the median age has dropped from 37.3 to 36.4. Rappahannock County, the next least-changing locality, became slightly older – its median age went from 51.6 to 52.
Further, migration data compiled by the Internal Revenue Service shows that in 2020, more people moved out of Buena Vista than moved in – 394 moved in, 486 moved out. (Those moving out also made slightly more money than those moving in.) Buena Vista also saw deaths (97) outnumber births (75) – so even a community whose population appears stable isn’t. Things are always changing beneath the numbers.
Buena Vista, with a median age of 36.4, actually trends on the young side, perhaps a reflection of students at Southern Virginia University living off campus. But Rappahannock County, like other rural counties, trends older. That has consequences over time as populations age. We won’t see that in year-by-year increments but we will in decade-by-decade time frames. In 1980, most localities in Virginia were about the same age. To the extent that there were variations, some of the youngest counties tended to be in the coal counties. The median age in Buchanan County was 26, in Wise County and Dickenson County 28, in Russell County and Tazewell County 29. Now there’s a much bigger age gap. In fact, the Census Bureau says Virginia has the biggest age gap of any state between its youngest locality (Lexington) and its oldest (Highland County). Those “young” coal counties in 1980 have all now aged. The median age in those places is now 41.6 in Wise County. 45.3 in Tazewell County, 45.7 in Dickenson County, 46.4 in Russell County and 47.8 in Buchanan County. By comparison, the statewide median age is 38.8.
Broadly speaking, what’s happened is that, as coal has declined, young adults have moved out in search of work, hollowing out each locality’s demographic pyramid. This is why those localities (and others) are so interested in population growth – they specifically want more young adults. If nothing else, they need workers to help take care of all these older adults, but they also need a labor force for other businesses as existing workers retire. Realistically, many of these counties don’t expect to gain population, they just hope to slow the rate of decline. New data since the last census shows that many rural localities are now seeing more people move in than move out – a trend that started before the pandemic, but which might have been accelerated in the Age of Zoom. However, in most places that net in-migration is nowhere close to making up for the deficits of deaths over births. Some counties may see a lot of people move in and still lose population. In an earlier column, I went over the numbers of just how many people they’d have to gain to truly break even on population.
Another point our reader poses is more philosophical: “Maybe the areas of Va. that are losing population should downsize their schools and other infrastructure to fit the population.” Actually, many localities have been downsizing schools – closing them, in fact. Dickenson County used to have three high schools, in Clintwood, Ervington and Haysi. Now it has just one. You can’t downsize in some ways, though. A school needs a first grade teacher whether there are 20 students or 10. On a cost-per-pupil basis, it’s more cost efficient if you have 20. You still have to pay to keep the lights and heat on in the building, even if you have fewer people in the county – fewer taxpayers – to pay the utility bills. You still have to pay for a school bus route no matter how many kids get on. (That’s why some are critical of charter schools or vouchers – the concept of tax dollars following students is philosophically appealing but there are still basic costs associated with running a public school system that can’t be reduced.) Since even the smallest county has to operate a public school system, it helps if there are more taxpayers to help pay for it. Add too many people, of course, and then you might have to build new schools but localities in most of Southwest and Southside are a long way from having that problem.
Other infrastructure is harder – if not impossible – to downsize. I wrote recently about how Danville, a city that’s been losing population for three decades straight, and has generally been losing population for six decades, is now making official plans for “serious growth.” One of the points that City Manager Ken Larking made is that Danville already has a lot of infrastructure left over from when it was a much bigger community – water and sewer capacity, for instance, and a road network. Pulaski County Administrator Jonathan Sweet has made much the same point about his county: The official goal there is to be “40 by 30” – 40,000 people by 2030. Right now the county is 33,800 (down in the most recent census). While the county has never had 40,000 people, it did once have 35,229 and Sweet feels the current infrastructure could handle 40,000 (which then makes it more cost-efficient to operate the school system). Not every locality is in that position, of course, but there are two that believe they are.
That thought leads me to this. Here’s a list of all the Virginia localities that are smaller in population than they once were, what and when their historic high was, and how many people it would take for them to get back to that high. Note that the 2020 figure doesn’t necessarily represent that locality’s low point – some localities may have already bottomed out and are gaining population, even if they’re not back to their historic high. (Roanoke is one example). Others are still falling. The point here isn’t to capture those changes, merely to show which localities are no longer as big as they once were, no matter whether their current population is rising or falling.
I’ll organize this in chronological order of when these smaller-than-they-once-were localities hit their peak, which helps tell a story of economic history.
Some rural localities peaked in the early 1800s when Virginia began to enter a period of out-migration to the West and economic stagnation.
LocalityPeak populationYear of peak2020 populationChange from peakRichmond County13,74418008,923-4,821Cumberland County11,69018309,675-2,015King and Queen County11,64418306,608-5,036Rappahannock County9,78218507,348-2,434
Starting in the late 1800s, another batch of rural localities peaked:
LocalityPeak populationYear of peak2020 populationChange from peakRockbridge County23,062189022,650-412Highland County5,64719002,232-3,415Accomack County36,650191033,413-3,237Sussex County13,664191010,829-2,835
Following World War I, and the economic disruptions that set in motion, more rural counties peaked:
LocalityPeak populationYear of peak2020 populationChange from peakBrunswick County21,025192015,849-5,176Charlotte County17,540192011,529-6,011Lunenburg County15,260192011,936-3,324Nelson County17,277192014,755-2,503Southampton County27,555192017,996-9,559
Then came the Great Depression (although the market crash in 1929 probably didn’t have much effect on the 1930 numbers):
LocalityPeak populationYear of peak2020 populationChange from peakBath County8,13719304,209-3,928Halifax County41,283193034,022-7,261Northampton County18,565193012,282-6,283Grayson County21,916194015,333-6,583
The post-World War II era led to more economic changes. Coal was the dominant source of energy, which explains why three counties in far Southwest (Lee, Scott and Wise) hit their peak in the first census after the war but then declined as the mining industry was more heavily mechanized.
LocalityPeak populationYear of peak2020 populationChange from peakAlleghany County23,139195015,223-7,916Dickenson County23,293195014,124-9,169Greensville County16,319195011,391-4,928Lee County39,106195022,173-16,933Scott County27,640195021,576-6,064Wise County56,336195036,130-20,206
Whether because of white flight, or economic changes, some cities peaked in 1960 or 1970 and then declined:
LocalityPeak populationYear of peak2020 populationChange from peakCovington11,06219605,737-5,325Portsmouth1114,773196097,915-16,858Hopewell23,741197023,033-438Martinsville19,653197013,485-6,168Norfolk307,9511970238,005-69,946Richmond249,6211970226,610-23,011
The twin energy crises of the 1970s led to a boom in coal production, which swelled the population of many (but not all) of the coal counties in 1980:
LocalityPeak populationYear of peak2020 populationChange from peakBristol19,042198017,219-1,823Buchanan County37,989198020355-17,634Giles County17,810198016,787-1,023Henry County57,654198050,948-6,706Norton4,75719803,687-1,070Petersburg41,055198033,458-7,597Roanoke100,2201980100,011-209Russell County31,761198025,781-5,980Smyth County33,366198029,800-3,566Tazewell County50,511198040,429-10,082
Danville peaked in 1990, just before textiles began to collapse:
LocalityPeak populationYear of peak2020 populationChange from peakDanville53,056199042,590-10,466
A seemingly random group of localities, some rural localities in the western part of the state, some rural localities along the Chesapeake Bay, but also a major city in Hampton Roads, all peaked in 2000:
LocalityPeak populationYear of peak2020 populationChange from peakBland County6,87120006,270-601Craig County5,09120004,892-199Hampton146,4272000137,148-9,289Lancaster County11,567200010,919-648Mathews County9,20720008,533-674Patrick County19,407200017,608-1,799
The biggest group of localities peaked in 2010:
LocalityPeak populationYear of peak2020 populationChange from peakAmherst County 32,3532010 31,307 -1,046Buckingham County 17,146 2010 16,824 -322Buena Vista 6,650 2010 6,641-9Carroll County30,042 2010 29,155-887Charles City County 7,256 2010 6,773 -483Dinwiddie County28,0012010 27,947 -54Emporia 5,927 2010 5,766-39Essex County 11,1512010 10,599 -552Franklin County 56,1592010 54,477 -1,682Galax 7,042 2010 6,720 -322Mecklenburg County 32,727 2010 30,319-2,408Middlesex County 10,959 2010 10,625 -334Northumberland County 12,330 2010 11,839 -491Nottoway County 15,863 2010 15,642 -41Page County 24,0422010 23,709-963Pittsylvania County 63,506 2010 60,501 -3,005Prince Edward County 23,3682010 21,849 -1,519Radford 16,408 2010 16,070 -338Washington County 54,876 2010 53,935 -941Wythe County 29,235 2010 28,290-945
Why did so many localities peak in 2010? Demographer Hamilton Lombard of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center blames “a combination of baby boomers aging, which has caused more deaths, and also many of their children moving away/having fewer children. This caused the number of Virginia’s 95 counties with more deaths than births to rise from 37 in 2008 to 67 in 2019 (it was higher in 2020 but some of that was pandemic related). What matters even more for population change is that the scale of the birth/death imbalance grew considerably during the period. In 2008, the 37 counties combined imbalance was 514 more deaths than births but by 2019 the 67 had 5,934 more deaths than births.”
The impact of young adults moving away has ripple effects, Lombard says. “Some examples in Virginia: the loss of many families caused Danville and Pittsylvania to already have 105 more deaths than births in 2008 but by 2019 the imbalance had risen to 540, making the prospect of growth more difficult to reach. The Coalfields saw a similar shift from -321 in 2008 to -1,123 in 2019. The Blacksburg, Roanoke and Staunton metro areas all saw a shift from having more births than deaths in 2008 to having hundreds more deaths than births by 2019. This shift hasn’t only been in small metro areas, Hanover and James City have both experienced a shift on a similar scale in their birth-death balance.
“The shift we are seeing in migration over the last few years may help make up for some of the population lost to having more deaths than births. But unless these counties are attracting young adults with families many will continue to lose population as their birth-death imbalance widens. The 2030 Census will almost certainly show that a number of Virginia counties’ populations peaked in 2020. A question for me is whether those counties will be rural/exurban ones such as Fluvanna or King William or whether (as implausible as it would have sounded in 2019) they will be the large urban ones, such as Arlington or Fairfax, that couldn’t keep remote workers.”
The 2030 census will come soon enough. So what should we make of this list as it is now?
First, you’ll notice that most of these localities are in Southwest and Southside, or rural Virginia more generally, plus a few central cities.
Second, you’ll notice that population declines are a fairly recent phenomenon in some localities, but not others. That probably leads to very different experiences at the ground level. Localities that peaked in 2010 probably do have the infrastructure to support a bigger population because 2010 wasn’t that long ago. Localities that peaked much further back in time may not. Richmond County, which peaked in 1800, probably adjusted a long time ago. In other localities, that economic adjustment – which might feel more like an economic dislocation to some – is a more ongoing thing.
Third, you’ll notice the staggering gap between the historic highs of some of these communities and their current populations. It won’t take much for Buena Vista to rebound to its historic high – it just needs nine more people. Emporia needs just 39, Nottoway County 41. These are all achievable numbers. Indeed, they might have attracted them already. But Buchanan County would need 17,634, Lee County 16,933, Wise County 20,206. This simply isn’t going to happen. In the words of the great philosopher Taylor Swift, “we are never ever ever getting back together.”
Perhaps the real question is what is the ideal population of each locality? That’s a more philosophical question and I generally don’t have much patience for philosophy. Ultimately, the answer in some ways is that the ideal population is whatever the economy can support at the time. We can see that most clearly in the coal counties: They’re shrinking because the economy there has changed and can no longer support the populations those localities once had. Should those localities reconcile themselves to that and be content with shrinking? Put another way, should we have an intentional policy of depopulating regions where the economy can no longer support their previous populations? Or should we more actively try to invent a new economy in those communities so they don’t have to go through the disruptions of depopulation? Danville, for instance, hasn’t been content with shrinking. It stands out as a textbook example of a community that’s working on building a new economy. It needs to make up a deficit of 10,466 people, which seems large – until you consider that neighboring Pittsylvania County just missed out on a Hyundai electric battery plant that would have employed 8,100 people. If that Southern Virginia Mega Site reels in the next one, it’s easy to see Danville making up that deficit in a hurry. Maybe someday Danville will have to fret about having too much population growth, although that’s not the case now. It’s just trying to get back to where it was. So are lots of other places. Danville, at least, has a reasonable expectation of doing so; some of these other localities will never again come close to what they had been.
So what would it take to close all these gaps? It would require 359,128 people moving into (mostly) rural Virginia, plus some central cities. That’s about the population of Henrico or Chesterfield counties and seems completely unrealistic. Consider this, though: Some 254,345 people moved into Virginia in 2020; the year before that, 235,580. They just usually weren’t moving into these places. What if more of them did?