New migration data shows an uptick of people moving into some rural areas

New migration data shows an uptick of people moving into some rural areas

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Danville, I have good news for you.

Don’t get too excited because I have some key caveats to wrap this good news in. But it is good news. 

First, though, I have to put things in context. We’ll start here: Every year the Internal Revenue Service releases figures on where people are filing their income taxes from, and how those figures differed from the year before. Put another way, we can look at those IRS stats to see migration trends — where people are moving in, where people are moving out.

In some ways, this data might be better data than the Census Bureau headcount. Not everyone files an income tax form, of course, so the data’s not perfect, but guess what: No data is. This is still a good hard number on migration trends that, when combined with other population data, helps us get a better picture of what’s happening. So that’s the first caveat: Don’t rely completely on this, but this is important stuff.

The states in green saw more people move in than move out between 2020 and 2021. The states in red saw more people move out than move in. Source: IRS.
The states in green saw more people move in than move out between 2020 and 2021. The states in red saw more people move out than move in. Source: IRS.

Last week, I reported the big headline for Virginia: For the ninth year in a row, these IRS stats show more people moving out of Virginia than moving in. That doesn’t mean the state is losing population. Census Bureau data shows that births outnumber deaths, and this net out-migration, so Virginia’s population is still growing, just more slowly than before. I’ll look at birth rates another day; for now we’ll just focus on people who are moving into or out of the state.

The figures last week also showed that Virginia’s net out-migration is driven by Northern Virginia. From 2020 to 2021, Virginia had a deficit of 7,224 people from more people moving out than moving in. In Fairfax County alone, the net out-migration was 14,588 people.

I promised then I’d dig deeper into this data, so here we go.

Here’s something else important to know: These are the first figures we have since the pandemic began so we get our first real look at what effect that might have had. If there’s a Zoom-era migration, here’s where we might expect to see it. 

Also: We shouldn’t hang too much on the data for any one year in these migration trends. A lot of population data is like the stock market. Sometimes it goes up, sometimes it goes down. The important thing is to look at trends, not every wiggle and jiggle.

Yes, I realize those two things seem contradictory: Hey, this information is a big deal! Hey, don’t take it that seriously! I also realize you’ve read all this way and you’re thinking like the woman in that 1980s Wendy’s commercial: Where’s the beef? You’ve seen prescriptions with fewer warnings than all this. 

Just hang on, OK? We’re almost there. We have just one more warning: Don’t pay attention to places with universities. The pandemic may have played havoc with those places’ stats, with colleges emptying out to go virtual. Montgomery County shows up as suffering from net out-migration, but nobody who has been there really believes that Montgomery County is shriveling up. 

All right, it’s finally showtime. Here’s the big picture:

1. Most of Virginia is seeing more people move in than move out.

It’s mostly just Northern Virginia, parts of Hampton Roads and parts of the Richmond area that are the problem. That means …

2. Most of rural Virginia is seeing more people move in than move out.

That runs counter to a lot of what we think but it’s true. And get this:

3. This trend of net in-migration in rural Virginia isn’t all that new.

Many rural localities have been seeing more people move in than move out for several years now, so we can’t specifically attribute these figures to that Zoom migration. However:

4. In some rural localities, we’re seeing in-migration accelerate. 

We might be able to attribute that acceleration to the pandemic (and rural broadband). We should probably hold off declaring that, though, until we’ve seen several years of data, not just one — remember, we’re looking for trends, not what might turn out to be one-year blips. Finally:

5. Many of these rural localities will continue to lose population even if there’s an influx of newcomers.

That’s because rural localities tend to be older, and old people tend to die, and those large numbers of deaths outnumber both births and the net number of people moving in. 

Now let’s look at some of the specific numbers, some of which might qualify as trends.

  • Lee County saw seven straight years of net out-migration before things turned around in 2020. That year, Lee County saw a net gain of 128 people from migration. Was that a fluke or the start of a new trend? We won’t know for a few years but in 2021, Lee County saw another net gain from migration, this time of 194 people. Those seem pretty hopeful figures.
  • Henry County has seen more people move out for 11 of the past 16 years, and when it has seen net in-migration, it’s always been under 100. But then in 2020 Henry County saw net in-migration of 224 and in 2021 that net in-migration went up to 376. Something seems to be going on there, and it’s not the only place.
  • Grayson County has been pretty even through the years — half the time it’s had net in-migration, half the time it’s had net out-migration, but those numbers have all been about the same. The last four years, though, Grayson has consistently seen net in-migration. In 2018, it showed a net gain of 54 people. In 2019, a net gain of 49. In 2020, a net gain of 74. But in 2021, Grayson’s net in-migration jumped to 125, the biggest ever that I can find (the searchable database goes back 16 years).
  • Patrick County next door has long had a history of net in-migration but has still lost population for the past two decades because deaths have outnumbered both births and all those newcomers. Those newcomers have also been pretty consistent, year by year. In 2018, the county saw a net gain of 64 people through migration. In 2019, a net gain of 36 people. In 2020, a net gain of 59 people. In 2021, that net in-migration accelerated to 295. 
  • Pittsylvania County, like Grayson County, has seen its migration trends toggle back and forth between people moving in and people moving out over the years, with 2020 being one of those moving-out years. But in 2021, Pittsylvania County saw net in-migration of 302 people — again, the biggest I can find in the records.
  • That brings us to Danville, which lost people through net out-migration for every year in that IRS database — until 2021, when it showed a net gain of 25 people through migration. That’s not many but it’s better than losing people, and it runs counter to all those other years that preceded it. Once again, maybe this is just a one-year aberration, but in the context of all these other localities, maybe it’s the first data point in a trend. If so that would a) be a big deal and b) not surprise me. Danville hit rock bottom two decades ago when textiles collapsed and has been reinventing itself ever since. Danville now calls itself “the comeback city” and that’s not just hyperbole. If this is, indeed, a trend, this would be some statistical support for that slogan.

While the numbers vary from place to place, the big story is that even before the pandemic, many rural localities were seeing more people move in than move out — and now the pandemic seems to have amped up those trends. We are going to have to adjust our mindset: Rural Virginia isn’t seeing people move away. As reported previously, it’s not even seeing a disproportionate number of young adults move away. Rural Virginia might like to see more people move in (or not, in some cases) and more young adults stay home, but the basic trend lines there are in its favor. What hurts rural Virginia is an aging population that is dying faster than it can be replaced. What hurts Virginia overall is the hemorrhaging from Northern Virginia. We are in the odd position that our state’s economic engine is also right now the main drag on the state’s economy. 

So, good news for Danville, but not necessarily the Old Dominion.

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