Sometimes governors acquire short titles.
Gerald Baliles was known as the transport governor.
Many governors wanted to be known as an education governor.
Ralph Northam became Governor for Social Justice after first being named otherwise.
With that in mind, let me hereby declare Glenn Youngkin demographics governor.
OK, that might not be the most memorable nickname, but it’s an apt one: Youngkin has spent more time talking about Virginia’s demographics than any governor I know (and my memory goes further back than I care to admit). There’s one number in particular that Youngkin talks about a lot: that Virginia has more people moving out than moving in — “emigration,” to use demographers’ parlance. Virginia is still growing in population — there are more births than deaths, but what’s really driving the state’s modest population growth and offsetting out-migration is immigration. Beneath the surface of this population growth, however, there is a silent drain of people that worries Youngkin — and should worries others, too.
Youngkin talked about it during the campaign, he talked about it in speeches on the economy, he brought it up in his recent State of the Commonwealth Address. I’ve written about these numbers before, but this time Youngkin added more context worth exploring:
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, Virginia has been in the top 10 net OUT migration in the country. The countries with which we compete for jobs and investment are at the other end of the spectrum. North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and Texas are all in the top 10 for net IN migration. Those states have grown by more than 1.7 million people while Virginia has lost over 32,000.”
Up to now I have considered Virginia in the context of herself; this migration only started in 2013 but has continued every year since then. At first it was just people of retirement age moving south – the classic snowbirds – but lately we’re seeing a net emigration in every age cohort.
Today, let’s accept his challenge and put Virginia’s demographic trends in the national context.
The three states with the largest net emigration in 2021 (the latest year available) were:
New York: -352.185
Those are pretty huge numbers. In Virginia terms, the net emigration from California is nearly equal to all the people in Botetourt County, Roanoke, Roanoke County, Salem, Montgomery County, and Radford who entered and moved away in a single year.
Virginia is nowhere near that magnitude, but we’re on the same page of the ledger.
New Jersey: -27,766
Hawaii: -12,603 (Who is moving out of Hawaii???)
Then comes Virginia at -8,995.
So Youngkin is right. Virginia is in the bottom 10, number 10 to be exact.
The other states with net emigration:
North Dakota: -6,460
New Mexico: -2,186
So what should we make of this list? There are many ways to cut this. Geographically, many of these states are rust belt states in the Midwest and Northeast that have long struggled with the economic changes that a post-industrial economy has brought—although California is a clear exception. The Golden State has increased in population since its inception; Now, for the first time, there is not just net emigration but an overall population decline. The National Football League Raiders aren’t the only California residents who have headed to Las Vegas. Meanwhile, the states with the highest immigration numbers are all in the Sun Belt, led by Florida with 220,890.
Republicans like to point out that the biggest population losers are the high-tax Democrats, and that’s certainly true. On the other hand, not all of these states are democratic. Some are definitely Republican, so partisan governance may not be as crucial as some might like to believe.
Youngkin likes to distinguish tax policies in Virginia from those of its rival Southeast states — with Virginia raising taxes and others lowering them. But is that really the driving factor? Or is tax policy secondary to other things, like warmer weather? It’s almost a philosophical argument. Tennessee, for example, has no income tax, but it ties with Louisiana for the country’s highest sales tax. Does that make Tennessee a low-tax state or a high-tax state? The conservative-leaning Tax Foundation says Virginia has the lowest sales tax in the South and one of the lowest sales taxes in the country. If you are wealthy then income tax is much more important than sales tax – hence opinions differ. On the other hand, Virginia’s corporate tax rate is higher than Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, so it’s not hard to imagine a company citing the numbers of a relocation decision and concluding that these states are more economical options, even if they have higher sales taxes.
Whether for tax reasons or other reasons, some of these other states are attracting people while Virginia is losing them. Why? Youngkin says it’s because other states have low-tax policies that drive more economic growth, but I haven’t heard anyone come up with an alternative theory. It would be nice to hear Democrats offer their own explanation for these migration numbers, because something certain seems to be happening here.
In 2021, Virginia recorded an emigration of 8,995, while North Carolina recorded a net immigration of 88,673 and Tennessee recorded a net immigration of 61,390. The difference between those numbers seems too big to ignore, yet Youngkin seems to be the only politician talking about them. More context: While Virginia had the 10th highest emigration in the country, North Carolina had the fourth highest immigration, behind only Florida, Texas and Arizona. The only other places where there is such a high net emigration state next to a high net immigration state are on the California-Arizona and Louisana-Texas state lines.
Even West Virginia — poor, miserable West Virginia that we all love to poke fun at — had a net immigration of 2,343. Likewise Kentucky with 10,022. Alabama, another state we don’t generally compare ourselves to, had almost three times the net immigration of Virginia — 22,136.
Why is West Virginia gaining in people while Virginia is losing?
To some degree, we know part of the reason and it may have nothing to do with the tax-driven reasons that Youngkin puts forward. Virginia’s net emigration is entirely due to more people moving out of Northern Virginia than moving in. Fairfax County alone saw a net emigration of 8,752 in 2021, according to Census Bureau estimates. Arlington was -5,801 and Alexandria was -4,391. For what it’s worth, the Internal Revenue Service, which also tracks where people live, puts the net emigration even higher — 14,231 from Fairfax County, -8,016 from Arlington, -5,042 from Alexandria.
In any case, these three locations alone account for more than Virginia’s total net emigration. Most places in Virginia saw net immigration—even most in the rural Southwest and Southside. On the other hand, even if Northern Virginia didn’t lose anyone and Virginia’s net migration were balanced, we still wouldn’t compare ourselves to these large numbers in North Carolina, Tennessee, and other Southeastern states.
The most commonly cited reason for this huge outflow from Northern Virginia is high real estate prices. Northern Virginia also exists in a different economic environment than the rest of Virginia, so someone looking for another job there may not find it in the state; Internal Revenue Service migration data shows that people from Northern Virginia are moving to Los Angeles, San Diego, and Seattle instead (so there’s a case of California and Washington state taking in people instead of losing them).
It is of course possible that there are several drivers here. Perhaps high home prices are driving the people of Northern Virginia, and perhaps favorable corporate tax rates are boosting the economies of the southeastern states.
All we can say for sure is that demographically, Virginia looks more like a Rust Belt state than a Sun Belt state. Or at least part of Virginia, and it’s not what people would expect. Shouldn’t we be talking about this more?