Virginia now a net loser in population

Virginians are moving out of the state faster than new people move in, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service say Virginia saw a net out-migration of 3,000 households in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. 

The commonwealth had been a net gainer in population over the previous 20 years. 

The study examined IRS income tax data to track individuals and families, which Cooper Center researchers say is more accurate than household surveys. 

Why are Virginians leaving a state that boasts the two highest-income counties in the United States? One theory is that the ongoing congressional budget sequester -- which has lowered the rate at which Washington increases spending -- is having a disproportionate impact on the state.

"County-level migration data seems to support the idea that the sequestration may be playing a role, because most migration out of state came from counties in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, which are where federal spending has the biggest impact in the state," Hamilton Lombard, a research specialist with the Cooper Center's Demographics Research Group, told AMI Newswire.

The sequester, implemented as part of a deal to avoid a debt ceiling crisis in 2011, mandated automatic spending reductions beginning in 2013. Half of the reductions were to come in defense programs, the other half in non-defense discretionary spending.

Virginia derives 13.9 percent of its GDP from federal defense spending, the highest in the nation, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis. The Pew Charitable Trusts found that in 2013, defense spending accounted for 31 percent of total economic activity in the commonwealth. Gov. Terry McAuliffe's 2014 "New Virginia Economy" plan acknowledged that the Defense Department "has no rival" as the state's biggest employer. 

In June, U.S. Department of Commerce data showed Virginia had 0.0 percent economic growth in 2014.

Virginia has tried a number of initiatives to diversify Virginia's economy away from federal spending, but the results have been unclear.

Other states experiencing out-migration have also attempted to use public policy to turn the demographic tide, but these efforts have had little effect, according to the Cooper Center's Lombard.

"When you look at other states that regularly experience out-migration, such as Pennsylvania or California they have made a number of efforts to stem the flow," said Lombard. "But neither has seen much success, likely because it isn't clear why so many people are leaving these states."

He also noted that Virginia's out-migration trend started before the sequester was in effect. 

"Out-migration actually picked up during the mid-2000s when Virginia's economy was considered much healthier, Lombard said. "The recession temporarily slowed out-migration but it has rebounded recently." 

A decline in coal production in Southwestern Virginia, along with the steady erosion of the once-vibrant furniture manufacturing industry in Southside, have contributed to declines in those parts of the state.

McAuliffe and his Republican predecessor Robert McDonnell sought to diversify the economies of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, but Lombard noted that these regions have seen the biggest exodus. "The migration data may indicate those efforts have not been entirely successful," he said.