The first thing to understand about any statewide statistics in Virginia is that Northern Virginia casts an enormous shadow. With its huge, largely prosperous, and well-educated population, it throws the numbers off.
"It's important to realize that a lot of that kind of affluence and high education and success are very geographically concentrated," says Rebecca Tippett, a demographer at the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center. "Seeing those statistics on the paper made me go, '…really? Wow!'"
Tippett looked at the most recent census data and numbers from the American Community Survey, finding dramatic differences between regions in a report published this month. While Northern Virginia grew 24 percent in the last decade, eight communities in Southside Virginia lost population.
While five percent of northern Virginians were jobless, 19 percent were unemployed in the southwest part of the state. Northern Virginia, she says, is ethnically diverse.
"It has the largest state population of foreign born, a large Asian population, a large Hispanic population, and a fairly sizeable black population," she says. "But then when you move down to Southside and Hampton Roads, there's a very large black population there, as well as in Eastern Virginia. But then when you go to say, southwest or the valley region, it's predominantly non-Hispanic white.
And the Virginia suburbs of Washington are densely populated, with 918 people per square mile. "Northern Virginia has about a third of the state's population and less than 10 percent of its land mass," Tippett says. "When you add in Hampton Roads and Richmond, you have about two thirds of the population. But the vast majority of the geographic state of Virginia is not captured in those regions.
So when lawmakers think about problems, such as unemployment, healthcare, literacy, or public transportation for example, Tippett says they should recognize that in Virginia, one size may not fit all.
She's drawn a new map of the state with eight regions that share important demographic characteristics. By thinking about life in the Valley, Southwest, Southside, Central, Northern, Richmond, Eastern, and Hampton Roads, Tippett hopes policymakers can do a better job of planning and serving Virginians.