The Times West Virginian

May 25, 2014

Forecast population decrease will impact economy

By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — By 2030, West Virginia could face a population drop equal to about 19,500 people.

The West Virginia University College of Business and Economics’ Bureau of Business and Economic Research recently published its long-term population projection for the state. The report, titled “Population Trends in West Virginia through 2030,” was released in March.

John Deskins, director of the BBER and one of the authors of the study, explained that the report uses publicly available data on population and various characteristics from the U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources to forecast the trends for about 20 years.

Dr. Christiadi, demographer at the BBER and also an author of publication, explained that there are two major components of population growth or decline: net migration, which is in-migration minus out-migration, and natural change, which is births minus deaths.

He said the bureau’s previous projection from a few years back was based upon information from the 2010 Census, and at that time, the BBER predicted that a population decline would happen sometime after the year 2025. However, the BBER’s new forecast, which utilizes more recent data, projects that the decrease in population will start much sooner — between 2016 and 2020. Christiadi explained that the main reason is because of differences in migration.

Deskins said the amount of people leaving West Virginia is expected to be pretty balanced with those moving into the state.

“We think overall migration is going to be very low,” he said. “We don’t expect much net migration all together.”

That migration pattern has fluctuated over recent years and is fairly uncertain. But there’s room for hope.

“The reason for optimism is that net migration figures could be a lot better than what we forecast,” Deskins said.

For instance, if economic opportunities come to the state, such as the ethane cracker plant that has been proposed for Wood County, more job opportunities could result, he said. This type of positive boost could encourage current West Virginians who were thinking about moving to stay in the state and also attract people from other states, which means losing much fewer people than expected.

But still, what’s going to happen with the net migration is difficult to predict. However, the natural population change is pretty certain, Deskins said.

The BBER previously predicted that the natural population change will be increasingly negative, and maintains that forecast for the years to come in the new report, Christiadi said.

“It’s going to be a gradual decline,” he said. “If you’re talking about West Virginia for the last three years, we didn’t grow at all.”

The estimates show that the state’s population declined in the 2012-2013 year, but should see another uptick in 2014-2015 before starting to drop gradually, Christiadi said.

Deskins added that following a period of stability, the state will begin experiencing sustained drops in population starting around 2015 or 2016. There will be minor declines throughout the decade, leading to more pronounced decreases by 2030.

West Virginia’s population is projected to drop by about 19,500 people between 2010 and 2030, which represents just over 1 percent of the population, he said.

“It certainly could be a lot worse than that,” Deskins said. “But that’s still not indicative of a strong, healthy economy. To be talking about any population decline is not a good sign in terms of judging economic performance.”

He said that decline of 19,500 is driven by the natural population change, which looks at how the population is aging. It’s almost a certainty that births are going to fall short of deaths, so there will be more people in the older population and less in the younger population.

“There are two forces,” Christiadi said. “We are going to see a much higher growth of the elderly population and at the same time the working age population, the younger age population, will decline.”

These changes will affect the economy as a result.

“It’s going to be a bit difficult to find workers to replace those who retire,” he said.

Plus, with many surrounding states expecting to experience the same trend of a decline in the working age population and growth in the elderly population, there will be a lot of competition among the states for workers, Christiadi said.

Deskins said a decline in the population could mean a lower demand for business’ goods and services, which could cause companies considering expanding into West Virginia to decide not to move here.

Another concern mentioned in the report is the possibility of West Virginia losing one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives because of the declining population in the state, while the country as a whole continues to grow, Christiadi said. This would mean that there could possibly only be two people representing West Virginia’s interests in U.S. government.

Deskins pointed out that the projected population loss among most of the counties in the state varies widely, with some counties seeing a big drop while others only suffering a small decrease.

However, some areas of the state — Monongalia County, and Berkeley and Jefferson counties in the Eastern Panhandle — are projected to experience strong population growth.

“That has been the trend for quite a while,” Christiadi said of those parts of West Virginia.

Deskins said the shift in population is forecast to continue in the North Central and Northeast regions of the state. Eleven counties in total are expected to add people to their population numbers between 2010 and 2030.

“The key is to focus on job opportunities that will help improve the net migration figure, to keep people in the state and to even attract people from other states (or countries) to move here,” Deskins said of how to keep the overall state economy strong and growing.

To access the full “Population Trends in West Virginia through 2030” report, go online to www.be.wvu.edu/bber.

Email Jessica Borders at jborders@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.