University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Center Study: Accomack and Northampton Counties To See Population Drop 2020-2040


By Connie Morrison

A population study by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service forecasts 53 of Virginia’s 133 cities and counties will lose population by 2040. Most of the declines will be in rural areas, and among the hardest hit will be Accomack County.

The study forecasts Accomack’s population will drop by more than 20% over the next 20 years, which would mean a loss of more than 7,000 residents. Northampton’s population would decrease by almost 2,000, a decline of 15%. On the whole, Virginia has seen double-digit population growth over the last decade, and the 2020 population is expected to grow another 14% by 2040. Only 12% of the state’s population lives in rural areas.

Of those remaining on the Eastern Shore of Virginia by 2040, the study projects more than a quarter in Accomack and one-third in Northampton will be age 65 or older. (The percentage of the population over 65 in Accomack in the 2020 is forecast at about one-fifth, and for Northampton, roughly one-quarter.)

That’s in line with other rural areas, but urban areas are mostly growing. Fairfax, Virginia’s most populated county, is expected to grow by 15% and Loudon, the commonwealth’s fastest-growing county, by 16%

It’s a national trend. A February 2019 study released by the University of New Hampshire found “746 counties, representing 24 percent of all U.S. counties, are depopulating, and nearly all of them — 91 percent — are rural.” Rural counties closest to metropolitan areas fared best.

By contrast, 9% of urban counties are depopulating.

People who study population patterns generally cite three causes to population change: births, deaths, and people moving in or out of an area (inmigration and outmigration). “Young adults are particularly prominent in these outmigration streams,” the study reported.

When young people leave, the number of births declines. Older populations that did not move, but chose to “age in place” contribute to higher death rates. These three factors together push populations number lower.

Demographic shifts can have profound impacts on everything from business opportunities and workforce to healthcare to legislative representation based on population.

“Seven thousand people … especially if they are in 20-50 age range, those are your workforce,” said Robie Marsh, executive director of the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce, who had not yet reviewed the study. “That impacts your restaurants and different businesses finding enough staff,” he said, “as well as people spending money here on a consistent annual basis.”

More than half of the estimated decrease in Eastern Shore population is in the workforce age group, generally defined as ages 15-64. That amounts to about 5,000 fewer people available for employment.

Two initiatives are helping to combat that kind of out-migration: expansion of broadband internet access and convincing college graduates to return to the Shore with the creation of high-paying jobs.

Bill O’Hare, a demographer living in Cape Charles, sees promise. “The amenities on the Eastern Shore make it attractive to a lot of affluent retirees and make it a popular tourist destination,” he said. “The are certainly signs in Cape Charles of population and economic growth.”

Population forecasts are only as good as their assumptions. “The way projections are developed reflects assumptions about the future,” wrote University of Virginia policy analyst Shonel Sen in an explanation posted at the Weldon Center’s website. The same methods were applied to all localities in Virginia.

O’Hare said that often involves looking at past trends and projecting them into the future. “I don’t think that works very well for the Eastern Shore,” he said.

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