West Virginia is projected to lose a congressional seat after the 2020 census, going from 3 House representatives to only 2. This shouldn’t be a surprise to most — The Census Bureau released population loss projections for W. Va. in 2017.
Loss of population, including ‘brain drain,’ has been a concern in West Virginia for years, with little headway being made to address the problem.
According to a study by Pew Charitable Trusts, West Virginia has been losing population faster than any other state in the nation, with our population dropping by about 0.1% each year — approximately 18,000 residents.
Is it any surprise our population is dwindling? Our legislature just spent months debating a controversial education reform bill that nearly all of our state’s education professionals had strong objections to, and most polling showed the majority of state residents opposed, all to pass the bill anyway.
Our state leads the nation in opioid-related overdose rates, and our Attorney General continues to reach settlements that allow the manufacturers and distributors to take no responsibility for their actions.
Our roads have become a joke, our leading industry is declining as the world moves on without it, our access to health care throughout the state is some of the worst in the nation, we are among the worst states in terms of cancer, diabetes, obesity, and mental health. Our state is in the midst of so many crises that they have stopped feeling urgent.
So people leave.
And who could blame them?
As residents of West Virginia, we know the good things we have. We know we have a beautiful state, we have friendly, supportive communities, we have a rich history and Appalachian culture and food. We have fun traditions, folklore and music.
Many residents will happily say that West Virginia is a great place to live. Yet, people are leaving by the thousands. Just beneath the warm, friendly Appalachia we hold dear, there are dire circumstances and problems that we have to stop ignoring. What does someone outside the state see when they look at West Virginia? What do they consider when they move?
Our education system is trailing the nation because we don’t want to invest in it. But even if we did, those students would struggle to find jobs in most fields, because we have failed to invest in diversification.
This lack of diversification also means we have very limited job availability — someone with a degree that is serviceable in other states may find little use for it in the Mountain State.
Health care access, which is a huge factor when considering relocation, is very poor, with most residents at least an hour away from any hospital. The most scenic view in the world isn’t going to entice someone into living in an area where they can’t have immediate access to healthcare in an emergency, especially if they have a pre-existing condition that might need regular attention. And the state of mental and behavioral healthcare is even worse.
Housing availability is also an issue – even here in Fairmont, our new city manager struggled to find a suitable home within city limits. And in areas susceptible to flooding, we seem to have an entirely different issue handling emergency recovery funds properly.
Many of our residents don’t even have access to broadband internet, let alone reliable cell phone coverage.
We should, perhaps, be thankful for our struggling economy, which makes it difficult for many people to afford relocation, or our population loss might be even more significant.
There are bright spots — the new tuition waver for community colleges, support for the tech corridor and FBI center, the aerospace sector — but they represent the first step in a much longer journey to transform our state.
In our day to day life, we know the appeals of living here — but on paper, West Virginia lacks in many areas that could attract new residents or retain our current ones, and as a result, there will likely be one less voice at the national level to stand up and help us fight to fix these issues — and one less reason for a presidential candidate to take interest in our state.
It is incumbent on us to become part of our own solution and, in doing so, elect state and local representatives who are willing to do the same. We have to work together to address our problems and help ourselves, because left unchecked, it’s only going to get worse.