Virginia’s Shifting Demographics and the Future Competitiveness of the Commonwealth

A Whole Community Health approach to Virginia’s rapid population growth over the past three decades.

White Paper written by James H. Johnson Jr., Allan M. Parnel, Jeanne Milliken Bonds, and Theresa Yu
Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise
Kenan-Flagler Business School
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

March, 2023

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Virginia’s rapid population growth over the past three decades has been uneven, creating demographic winners and losers, and masks several demographic headwinds that will constrain future growth and competitiveness if left unaddressed, including slowing rates of total and foreign-born population growth, white population decline, deaths of despair, and declining labor force participation among prime working age males and females in the state. A Whole Community Health Approach—strategically addressing the social determinants of health at the distressed community level—and advocacy for family- and immigrant-friendly workforce policies, procedures, and practices are required to properly address the labor needs of newly recruited businesses and ensure the success of Governor Youngkin’s Compete to Win Comprehensive Economic Development Plan. 


Over the past five decades a profound geographical redistribution of the U.S. population has been underway (Johnson and Parnell, 2019; Chamie, 2021). After capturing only about one-third of net national population growth in every decade between 1910 and 1970, the South has captured over half of net population growth in each of the past five decades—1970-2020. Over this period, the South’s emergence as the nation’s primary growth magnet has been largely driven by net domestic migration from the other three regions of the country—the Northeast, the Midwest, and the West—and from international migration, that is, movers from abroad (Frey, 2022; Johnson, Parnell, & Bonds, 2023). 

Census Bureau population estimates for the past two years—2020-2022—indicate that this redistribution trend continued as we entered the third decade of this millennium—albeit with a sharp decline in international migration during the crisis phase of COVID-19 pandemic. However, with the reopening of the U.S. to international travel following declines during the COVID shutdown in late 2021, the most recent Census estimates reveal a resurgence of international migration to the U.S. generally—and to the South in particular (Frey, 2023). 

In prior research, we have documented how the South’s emergence as the nation’s primary migration destination has transformed the geo-demographics of North Carolina (Johnson, Parnell, & Bonds, 2022; Johnson, 2020; Johnson, 2021b; Johnson & Bonds, 2022; Johnson, Bonds, & Parnell, 2022). In this paper, we undertake a similar analysis for Virginia, focusing specifically on the nature, geographic scope, and magnitude of demographic change across the state’s 95 counties and 38 independent cities. For the purposes of this study, we rely primarily on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 and 2020 Decennial Censuses, American Community Survey for the inter-census years between 2010 and 2020, and estimates of population change and the components of change for the period April 1, 2020 to July 1, 2022. The post-2020 Census population estimates cover much of the period when the nation was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As essential background and context, we begin our analysis with a brief overview of the South’s emergence as the regional center of population growth in our nation. Next, we shift our attention to the Commonwealth of Virginia. We highlight recent aggregate trends in population change, the drivers of observed trends, and the consequential shifts in the race/ethnic and age composition of the state’s population. We then undertake a detailed accounting of the demographic winners and losers among the state’s counties and independent cities, using the Balance of Population Change framework to guide our analysis. We conclude by assessing the implications of the disruptive demographic trends that have transformed Virginia’s population and which, if left unaddressed, will affect the state’s competitiveness in the years ahead. 


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About the Authors

James H. Johnson, Jr. is the William Rand Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship in the Kenan-Flagler Business School and Director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center in the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Jeanne Milliken Bonds is a Professor of the Practice, Impact Investment and Sustainable Finance in the Kenan-Flagler Business School and the Department of Public Policy at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Allan M. Parnell is a Senior Research in the Kenan Institute’s Urban Investment Strategies Center and Vice President of the Mebane, NC-based Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities.

The Kenan Institute fosters mutual understanding between members of the private sector, the academic community, and their government, and to encourage cooperative efforts among these groups.

The Kenan Institute serves as a national center for scholarly research, joint exploration of issues, and course development with the principal theme of preservation, encouragement, and understanding of private enterprise.

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