A Silver Lining to West Virginia’s Dark Census Cloud

The steady population decline has been an ongoing challenge for West Virginia. The number of residents has dropped from a peak of just over 2-million in 1950 to 1,782,959 as of July 1, 2021, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Census.

The drop in population is the result of more deaths than births and people moving out of West Virginia.  The state, as well as other parts of Appalachia, has been drained by the Hillbilly Highway, the name given to the emigration of people from rural areas to more industrialized regions.

The result has been a “brain drain” of young people, a negative impact on the tax base, a dearth of new ideas, and a diminished labor force. West Virginia’s workforce participation rate is just 54.2 percent, second lowest in the country after Mississippi.

Garrett Ballengee

However, the latest Census dark cloud does have a silver lining.

Garrett Ballengee, executive director of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, a conservative think tank, took a closer look at the Census numbers and found an encouraging sign: the state’s net domestic migration is on the positive side.

Between July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021, West Virginia had a net migration of 2,343—that many more people moved into the state than moved away. The state still had an overall population decline during that time of about 7,000 because more people died than were born.

However, the net migration number stops, at least for the moment, the exodus. From April 2010 to July 1, 2019, the state had a negative emigration of over 43,000. Again, think Hillbilly Highway, especially for young people.

So, why the change over the last year?

Ballengee has not researched it, and he was hesitant to venture a guess during an interview on Talkline last week. “People choose to move for a lot of different reasons,” but he offered that it might have to do with a lower cost of living, a slower paced lifestyle, and how the pandemic may have impacted lifestyle and career decisions.

“I’m a free market, conservative guy (and) I like to think that our business friendliness is getting better, our tax structure is getting a little bit better, we’ve got some interesting education reforms that have been passed,” Ballengee said.

Notably, four of West Virginia’s five surrounding states had net emigration losses—they had more people moving out than moving in.  Maryland had the greatest exodus, with 20,000 individuals leaving over the last year. Only Kentucky had net positive domestic migration.

One year does not make a trend, and West Virginia is still heading in the wrong direction because of the low birth rate compared with deaths.  However, it is also possible that traffic on the Hillbilly Highway is beginning to slow and a few more vehicles are heading in the other direction.

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