Franklin County’s new demographics

The latest population estimates recently released for every Virginia city and county contain a small bombshell: Franklin County is losing population.

This is a reversal of historic trends that is so dramatic it’s hard to overstate.

This two-part editorial will examine this new development.

From the 1970s onward, Franklin County was one of the fastest-growing localities in the state. Its population expanded 33 percent during the ‘70s.

The census counts in 2000 and 2010 still pegged the county’s growth at just under 20 percent — at a time when many rural localities in Virginia were losing population.

By contrast, from 1970 to 2010, Franklin County’s population more than doubled — from 26,858 to 56,159.

Much of that was due to Smith Mountain Lake; some of that was due to Franklin County’s proximity to Roanoke.

Since 2010, growth has been slowing, but the 2017 population estimates still showed Franklin County’s population expanding, albeit at a much slower rate.

Now The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University Virginia says Franklin County’s population is shrinking. It’s down just 32 people, to 56,127, so statistically speaking, it’s basically flat.

Still, this is a turnaround of historic proportions. Franklin County hasn’t lost population since the 1940s, when World War II and the economic changes it set in motion shrank the county’s population by 5 percent.

Why is Franklin losing population?

First, the county’s in-migration has slowed — to a net of just 430 this decade.

Second, deaths outnumber births by 462. Hence the net result of 32 fewer people. Both of these trends are recent phenomena, and bear further examination.

Weldon — which is responsible for producing population estimates — has supplied us with historical data that allow us to dig deeper.

Franklin’s “death boom” is relatively new. From 1919 — as far back as records go— through 2009, births outnumbered deaths in the county.

It was not until 2010 that deaths began to outnumber births.

That trend has continued for every year since. In 2010, deaths outnumbered births by 14. By 2017, there were 123 more deaths than births.

There’s a logical explanation for this: Franklin County’s population is growing older.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone since the county has become a magnet for retirees, especially around the lake.

However, the county has been attracting retirees for a long time; why did births still outnumber deaths up until 2010?

Most rural localities in Virginia now see deaths outnumber births, so Franklin County is hardly alone.

Virtually all rural localities in the state are aging. Notice that the births-over-deaths flipped to deaths-over-births shortly after the last recession hit. Since then, births statewide are down 7 percent.

It’s likely that the recession discouraged young adults from starting or expanding families, because children are expensive. Feel free to toss in other social trends, if you wish.

American birth rates have been declining for decades now. Whatever the causes, the numbers remain the same: A lot of people in Franklin County are dying and not as many are being born.

To be continued...

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