Last week I wrote about some of the positive economic trends in West Virginia. The most notable was that state government ended the fiscal year with at least a $20 million surplus. That reversed a six year trend of mid-year budget cuts or freezes in order to balance the books at the end of the year.
In addition, coal is on the rise again after a long slump and per capita income increased 3.4 percent last year, higher than the national average. However, there is one overriding statistic that is a yoke weighing down the state’s economy—an aging and dwindling population.
According to Pew Research analysis of U.S. Census Bureau figures, West Virginia and Michigan were the only two states to lose population in the last decade (2007-2017). Michigan’s population dropped by 39,000 residents during that period or .04 percent per year, while West Virginia’s population declined by 18,000 or the equivalent of .10 percent annually during that period.
Dr. John Deskins, Director of WVU’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research told me during a 2016 interview, “If you want businesses to locate in West Virginia to create jobs, create income, create prosperity, those businesses have to be confident they can find the workers that they need.”
“If we have an area with a declining population and with an aging population to boot, then it’s just harder and harder for them to find the workers they need,” said Deskins.
Moody’s reported earlier this year that the median age in West Virginia is 42, the fourth highest in the nation, and that’s also an economic drag. “Aging populations can lead to a stagnant economy and weak revenue growth for state and local governments,” Moody’s reports.
Our state has pockets of growth—the eastern panhandle, the north central region and parts of the I-64 corridor—but not enough to offset the significant declines in other parts of the state.
Fourteen percent of the U.S. population moves at least once every year, but they just are not moving here. West Virginia has some advantages that may eventually attract more people—low cost of living, plenty of open space.
But we also have significant challenges including the opioid crisis, limited job opportunities, an incomplete internet infrastructure, and an image problem. Not until the state can overcome these obstacles—real and imagined—will the population trend begin to turn around.