High Cotton: When Virginia’s Counties Hit Their Peak

If you grew up in one of Northern Virginia's Historical PopulationVirginia’s suburban counties, such as Prince William, or in any of Virginia’s metro areas, you likely grew up with the impression that growth is as certain as the seasons. For decades, many counties in Virginia have grown relentlessly, constructing thousands of homes each year to house new residents. With more residents come more schools, roads, offices and shops. Except for the hard times around the Civil War, Virginia’s population as a whole has grown continuously since it was a colony.

But outside Virginia’s largest urban areas, population growth is not a fact of life. In 2013, the population of most of Virginia’s counties and cities had declined from when it peaked in the past.Peak Population3

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Retiring Boomers are going rural (but not too rural)

There is a lot of buzz amongst urbanists and demographers about millennials’ preference for urban areas.  We’ve found evidence to support this narrative in some areas of Virginia, including indications that they may be staying even after having kids.

But there’s also a lot of talk about baby boomers retiring and moving into cities.  Maybe this is happening in other parts of the U.S., but it’s certainly not the case in Virginia.  On the contrary, they appear to be heading for the hills.  In fact, despite Forbes Magazine naming Virginia its 5th best state to retire in, Virginia does not appear to attract many retirees in general.

Virginia is aging quickly, as can be seen on the map below.  From 2000 to 2010, the median age in the Commonwealth rose from 35.7 to 37.5.  In some localities, it rose by as many as 5 or 6 years in just that 10-year period.  But most of that is due to a gradual decline in birthrates, not older people moving in.  From 2000 to 2010, migration accounted for only a slight (1-2%) increase in the population of age groups around retirement age, and that increase was smaller than the state’s overall growth rate.

Median Age Change

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Virginia’s Changing Economy

Recently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics published a map of industry sectors with the highest employment by state over the past couple of decades.  The map shows clearly America’s shift from manufacturing to retail to healthcare.  Retail trade has led in Virginia since 1996, even as the rest of the states have been taken over by healthcare.

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Ancestry: Who do you think you are?

Largest Ancestry: 2000

Census-2000-Data-Top-US-Ancestries-by-County 2

This is one of my favorite demographic maps. It was produced by the Census Bureau to show the most commonly reported ancestry for each county in the United States in 2000. Even though the data is over 13 years old, the map remains very popular.

Since a follow-up map for 2010 has not been produced yet, I thought it would be more than worthwhile to create this map using Census American Community Survey data.

Largest Ancestry: 2010

Including Unreported

The methodologies used in making the 2000 and 2010 ancestry maps are similar, but there is one important alteration in the 2010 map. Ancestries that can be logically grouped together were combined so they might be better represented on the map. For example, Scandinavian ancestries: Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Finnish, are very common in the Upper Midwest. Individually, they are the most popular ancestries in only a few counties, but when grouped together, Scandinavian is the most common ancestry in over 70 Upper Midwest counties.

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Home Building: Now for something completely different

During the past decade major changes in population growth patterns were evident in Virginia. In contrast to what happened in the early 2000s housing boom, when many counties on the edges of urban areas became some of the fastest growing in the country, when the boom ended, these same “exurban” counties declined in population. At the same time, after decades of stagnation and decline, urban centers began to grow again during the early 2000s.

One way to understand these dramatic changes in where Virginia’s population grew is to analyze home construction activity because it is often one of the most reliable indicators of population and economic change.

During the early 2000s, Virginia underwent a real estate boom that mirrored what was occurring nationally in the wake of broadening access to mortgages. In Virginia, home prices rose in many parts of the state during this time, but particularly in larger metro areas. In Fairfax County, for example, the median home sale price more than doubled from $220,000 in 2000 to $545,000 in 2005. Rising home prices forced many home buyers to move farther out from urban areas for affordable homes in the exurbs.

Change in the Number of Homes Constructed 2000 to 2005

Before 2005 2

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Animating historical county boundaries and census data

Among those of us who love old maps, the good people at the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries project have digitized and uploaded historical information on the shape of American counties.  With this data one can animate how America’s political boundaries have changed since the founding of the Massachusetts Bay and Virginia Colonies.  The above video shows historic county boundaries from 1630 to 1910 (shortly after Oklahoma and Indian Territory joined to form the State of Oklahoma in 1907).  Please note these boundaries show the creation of government-defined geographic units, not necessarily where population is located.

Another great thing about this data is the level of detail available.  For instance, focusing on the monumental changes that Virginia has gone through is quite interesting:

Note the emergence of many of Virginia’s Independent Cities at the turn of the 20th Century.

Things get more interesting when these county files are merged with historical census data.  Inspired by our previous post on “Every person gets a dot,” I decided to look at county population dot densities from the first United States Census of 1790 to the recent 2010 Census.  Here, every dot represents 5,000 people:

Dustin Cable is a Policy Associate at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service where he conducts research on topics that lie at the intersection of demographics, politics, and public policy.

Lower turnout in 2012 makes the case for political realignment in 2008

Now that most states have finalized and submitted their official election results (yes, it does take that long), we can take a closer look into state and local turnout rates for the 2012 presidential election.

But first, an overview of the results…

As we all know, Barack Obama will be starting his second term after he is inaugurated in a couple of days.  While it would probably be hasty to say that Obama received a huge “mandate” from the election back in November, it’s fair to say he defeated Mitt Romney handily, with room to lose battleground states and still win.  In fact, one of the more surprising results from the presidential election is how little the electoral map changed from 2008.  The county-level results for 2012 and 2008 below illustrates this point:

GIF Animation of Nation Election Outcomes 2008, 2012

Obama’s margins over his Republican challenger shrunk in most battleground states and was enough to flip Indiana and North Carolina, the only two states to switch between 2008 and 2012.  But despite the slow and tenuous economic recovery, high unemployment, a controversial health reform law, and a slew of other things Obama had going against him during the campaign, nothing much changed.  This was also despite lower turnout rates across the country.

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Virginia Votes 2012: Turnout across localities

About two-thirds of Virginians voted last Tuesday!

65.3% of eligible Virginians voted in last week’s presidential election (based on unofficial results and an estimate of the number of eligible voters in Virginia*).  This represents a modest decline from 2008, when 66.7% of eligible Virginians voted, but the drop off in 2012 is minor at less than 2% and turnout in 2012 is still on the high end for Virginia historically.

Graphic showing voter turnout in Virginia over the past three decades

How does turnout across the state in 2012 compare to 2008?

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