West Virginia: “Almost Heaven” or “Already Gone”

New U.S. Census data released this week show that West Virginia’s population dropped by 65,000 over the last decade.  That represents a 3.2 percent drop, more than any other state that also saw declining population from 2010 to 2020.

This is not a new trend.

West Virginia’s population peaked in the middle of the last century at over two-million, but there has been a steady decline over the last 70 years.

“It is reflective of the economic struggles we’ve seen over this time with the loss of coal jobs and other factors,” said Dr. John Deskins, Director of WVU’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

“The grim part of this whole story is West Virginia is seeing natural population decline,” Deskins said.  ‘We have more deaths than we have births and we’re losing over 4,000 people a year because of that factor.”

Over the years, many West Virginians famously took to the “Hillbilly Highway,” the figurative and literal trip south to North Carolina seeking better opportunities. As West Virginia has struggled to grow, North Carolina has thrived.

Consider these figures:

–In 1950, West Virginia’s population was about two-million, while North Carolina’s was just over four-million.  Today, our state’s population has dropped to just under 1.8 million while North Carolina’s has risen to 10.5 million.

–Charleston’s population was 73,000 in 1950, while Charlotte’s was 133,000.  Today Charleston’s population is down to 48,000, while Charlotte has surged to over two-million.

No, West Virginia and North Carolina are not exactly analogous, however, the figures serve as a stark indicator of growth versus stagnation.  The Tar Heel State has benefited from net migration, while the Mountain State has suffered from outward migration.

Deskins believes the primary reason for West Virginia’s population problems is economic.  “If we can create better opportunities, then the migration figure can turn around,” he said.

This is West Virginia’s ongoing existential challenge that we have not yet solved.

Those of us who are still here believe this is Almost Heaven—or that it can be with some work—and we believe that others would see what we see if we could just get them to come here.

Or to come home.

Sadly, the Already Gone movement has claimed at least two generations of some of the best and the brightest among us.

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