Sometimes governors acquire abbreviated titles.
Gerald Baliles was known as the governor of transportation.
Many governors wanted to be called the governor of education.
Ralph Northam became Governor of Social Justice after being first named something else.
In that spirit, let me announce Glenn Youngkin as Governor of Demographics.
Okay, it might not be the most catchy nickname, but it’s fitting: Youngkin has spent more time talking about Virginia’s demographics than any governor I’ve known (and my memory goes further back than I’d like to admit). There is one number in particular that Youngkin talks about a lot: More people are leaving Virginia than coming in – “emigration” in the language of demographers. Virginia is still growing in population – the birth rate is outstripping the death rate – but what really contributes to the state’s modest population growth and offsets the outflow is immigration. Beneath the surface of this population growth, however, lies a silent exodus of people that worries Yongkin—and should worry others as well.
Youngkin talked about it on the campaign trail, he talked about it in economics speeches, he came back to it in his recent Commonwealth address. I’ve written about these numbers before, but this time Yongkin added more context that’s worth exploring:
“Since the start of the pandemic, Virginia has been in the top 10 in terms of net migration outcome in the country. The states we compete with for jobs and investment are at the other end of the spectrum. North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, and Texas are in the top ten for the cleanest domestic migration. These states have grown by more than 1.7 million while Virginia has lost more than 32,000.”
So far, I have considered Virginia in its context; this emigration started only in 2013, but has continued every year since then. At first, it was just people of retirement age that migrated south – classic snowbirds – but recently we have seen a net outflow in all age groups.
Today, let’s take Youngkin’s challenge and look at Virginia’s demographic trends in a national context.
The three states with the highest net migration in 2021 (latest available year) were:
California: -367 299
New York: -352 185
Those are pretty huge numbers. From the perspective of Virginia, net emigration from California is almost equivalent to all the residents of Bottour County, Roanoke County, Roanoke County, Salem County, Montgomery County, and Radford County packing up and leaving in one year.
Virginia doesn’t come close to that scale, but we’re on the same side of the ledger.
Louisiana: -30 312
New Jersey: -27,766
Hawaii: -12,603 (Who’s leaving Hawaii???)
Then comes Virginia at -8,995.
So Yunkin is right. Virginia is in the top ten, exactly 10th.
Other states that record net emigration:
North Dakota: -6460
New Mexico: -2186
So what should we do from this list? There are many ways to cut it. Geographically, many of these states are the so-called Rust Belt states of the Midwest and Northeast, which have long struggled with the economic changes brought about by the post-industrial economy, although California is a clear exception. The Golden State has grown since its inception; now for the first time there is not only net emigration, but also a general decline in the population. The NFL Raiders aren’t the only Californians to move to Las Vegas. Meanwhile, the states with the most immigrants are in the Sun Belt, led by Florida (220,890).
Republicans like to point out that the biggest population losses are high-tax Democracies, and that’s certainly true. On the other hand, not all of these states are democratic. Some of them are definitely Republican, so party leadership may not be as much of a determining factor as some would like to believe.
Youngkin likes to distinguish between the tax policies of Virginia and rival states in the Southeast: Virginia raises taxes while others cut them. But is it really a driving factor? Or is tax policy tied to other things, like warmer weather? It’s almost a philosophical argument. Tennessee, for example, has no income tax, but is associated with Louisiana for having the highest sales tax in the country. Does that make Tennessee a low or high tax state? The conservative Tax Foundation claims that Virginia has the lowest sales tax in the South and one of the lowest sales taxes in the nation. If you are rich, then income tax matters much more than sales tax, so opinions differ. On the other hand, Virginia’s corporate income tax is higher than Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, so it’s not hard to imagine a company calculating relocation decision data and concluding that these states are more economical. options. even if they have higher sales taxes.
Whether for tax reasons or some other reason, 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 encourage 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 definitely seems to be going on here.
In 2021, 8,995 people emigrated from Virginia, while North Carolina had a net immigration of 88,673 and Tennessee had a net immigration of 61,390. The difference between these numbers seems too big to ignore, but Jungkin seems to be the only politician talking about them. Additional Context: While Virginia was the tenth largest outbound nation, North Carolina was the fourth largest inbound, behind only Florida, Texas, and Arizona. The only other places where a high net migration state neighbors a high net migration state are on the California-Arizona and Louisiana-Texas borders.
Even in West Virginia—the poor, miserable West Virginia we all love to laugh at—net immigration was 2,343. So did Kentucky with 10,022. Alabama, another state we don’t usually compare ourselves to, has nearly three times the net immigration of Virginia, at 22,136.
Why is West Virginia gaining people and Virginia losing?
To some extent, we know part of the reason, and it may not have anything to do with the tax-related reasons Youngkin is promoting. Virginia’s net emigration is entirely due to more people leaving Northern Virginia than entering. Fairfax County alone had a net emigration of 8,752 in 2021, according to Census Bureau estimates. Arlington had -5801 and Alexandria -4391. For what it’s worth, the Internal Revenue Service, which also tracks where people live, estimates net emigration even higher: 14,231 from Fairfax County, -8,016 from Arlington, -5,042 from Alexandria.
In any case, these three places alone account for more than Virginia’s entire net emigration figure. Most communities in Virginia saw net immigration—even most rural areas of the Southwest and Southside. On the other hand, even if Northern Virginia lost no one and Virginia’s net migration was even, we still couldn’t match those large numbers in North Carolina, Tennessee, and other southeastern states.
The most commonly cited reason for this massive outflow of population from Northern Virginia is high housing prices. Northern Virginia is also in a different economic orbit than the rest of Virginia, so someone looking for a different job may not find one inland; Internal Revenue Service migration data shows that people from Northern Virginia are instead moving to Los Angeles, San Diego, and Seattle (so there’s a case of California and Washington state picking people up instead of losing them).
It is possible, of course, that there are several drivers here. Perhaps high housing prices are driving people out of Northern Virginia, and favorable corporate tax rates are stimulating the economies of the southeastern states.
All we can say for sure is that, demographically, Virginia is starting to look more like a Rust Belt state than a Sun Belt state. Or at least part of Virginia, and that’s not what people might expect. Shouldn’t we talk more about this?