West Virginia’s depressing drip, drip, drip population decline continues. New figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that West Virginia’s population dropped by 11,216 people from July 1, 2017, to July 1, 2018.
The state’s population peaked in 1950 at two-million, but has been gradually and steadily declining ever since. Census figures show a drop of about 34,000 people over the last three years, to a population of 1.8 million.
West Virginia is not alone. The new Census figures show eight other states had declining populations last year—Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York and Wyoming. You might wonder why people are leaving Hawaii, but it’s because of the cost of living. For example, according to a CNBC ranking, the average home in Honolulu costs $1 million and the monthly energy bill is $433.
Idaho and Nevada are the fastest growing states. Each had population increases of over two percent last year, and both can credit California for their growth. The crowds and high cost of living in California are causing residents to move away and Idaho and Nevada are the beneficiaries.
West Virginia’s eastern panhandle is growing for a similar reason. Jefferson and Berkeley Counties are benefiting from the urban flight from the Washington-Baltimore metroplex. But while our state has pockets of population growth, the overall trend is downward, and that’s troubling.
The state’s exodus, combined with a birth rate that does not keep up with the death rate, means West Virginia has a downward spiral that is going to be difficult to reverse. John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at WVU, said, “Population growth is a part of making the state attractive to potential businesses. If you see an area of population decline, is a business going to come there? A business has to be confident it’s going to find the workers it needs before it locates in an area.”
And there is our conundrum. Businesses are reluctant to come here or expand because of declining population, while one of the reasons for the outward migration is the lack of opportunity. Additionally, as the state gets older and sicker, the cost of providing services to that population increases.
I keep hoping that the overall trend will reverse, but I’m not sure how or when. I live in Morgantown where the population is growing and the economy is expanding, but I also travel to other parts of the state where the landscape is dotted with vacant businesses and abandoned houses. This is going to sound cruel, but tell me if you agree—there are some parts of West Virginia where you just would not want to live.
I suspect most of us who are still here love our state. I do, and I’m proud to be from here, but around this time of year when we reconnect with family we are poignantly reminded just how many of our children and grandchildren have left the state. They may still consider themselves West Virginians, but they have taken their talents elsewhere… and they are probably not coming back.