By John Raby
Population declines in southern West Virginia counties led to an overall drop in the state’s population last year, according to U.S. Census figures released Thursday.
The figures show 41 of the state’s 55 counties lost population from 2012 to 2013, including 15 counties that lost more than 200 residents.
Eight of the 10 counties that lost the most population were in coal-rich southern West Virginia, led by Kanawha (786) and McDowell (457).
West Virginia remains the No. 2 producer of coal and leads the nation by far in coal jobs. But the industry, especially in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia, has seen thousands of layoffs in the past few years.
In some counties such as McDowell, where the unemployment rate is 10.5 percent, coal is practically the only source of jobs. The county’s jobs landscape isn’t considered diversified enough for laid-off workers to consider going into another industry without moving elsewhere.
“Right now it’s in one of the worst shapes that they’ve seen in a long time,” said Peni Adams, executive director of the McDowell County Economic Development Authority. “We’re a one-industry county. I don’t want to say all of southern West Virginia is that way. But McDowell County, we’ve relied on coal for so long. The coal industry is in a bind right now.”
The only two counties to gain population in southern West Virginia were Cabell and Putnam counties.
The report found that Monongalia County, home to West Virginia University, had the state’s largest gain of 1,747 people. Most of those involved people moving from elsewhere, including 305 internationally.
Monongalia became the state’s third largest county and joined Kanawha and Berkeley as the only counties with more than 100,000 residents. Despite its own gains, Cabell County, home of Marshall University, slipped one spot to fourth with 97,000 residents.
The Eastern Panhandle counties of Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan — counties that have increasingly become the home of commuters who work in the nearby Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area — saw growth. Of the 14 counties total that gained population, eight involved less than 100 people.
Deaths outpaced births in 42 of 55 counties and by 1,000 people overall. Kanawha County had by far the most deaths and births.
There were 322 more deaths than births in Kanawha County, while Berkeley County had 469 more births than deaths, the biggest net gain in the state.
Sixty percent of the counties had a net loss of residents due to people moving out. Overall, the state lost 913 residents to migration last year.
In addition to Monongalia, Berkeley County was the only other county with a significant migration gain at 1,014 residents.
Overall, West Virginia’s population fell nearly 2,400 last year. The state has 1.85 million residents.