They are apparitions that haunt us in the vacant buildings of Wheeling and Huntington and in the empty, tumble-down houses that line the hollers of southern West Virginia coal fields. They are two million souls who were or would have been West Virginians, but who instead were sucked from the state by social and economic forces that for decades have made a mockery of the efforts of politicians and business leaders to stem the flow.
The rush of emigration is so great and so sustained that it seems natural, endemic and as uncontrollable as the weather, although it is not much discussed. It should be however, because emigration defines and shapes the economy, culture, and politics of West Virginia more than politicians, more than the coal industry, and more than the Appalachian Mountains themselves.
The numbers only begin to tell the story. In 1950 there were over two million West Virginians. One out of every 76 Americans was a West Virginian. Since then America’s population has nearly doubled to over 300 million, but the number of West Virginians has actually declined by 10%. So now, instead of representing one in 76 Americans, West Virginians are only one in one hundred and seventy-six. Had West Virginia’s population grown in proportion to that of the nation as a whole there would be more than 4 million of us today, but there are only 1.8 million. Where did the others go? And, more importantly, what have they taken with them?
Demographers will tell you that West Virginia is the domestic equivalent of Mexico except for the fact that the immigrants we export are legal. Of course, that doesn’t mean they are any more welcome.
In the 1960’s and 70’s it was commonplace to hear Ohio politicians complain that West Virginia was exporting its problems north. In fact, the southern suburbs of Columbus, the state capital, sometimes felt and still feel more heavily populated by refugees from West Virginia and Kentucky than by native-born Ohioans. The same is true of Charlotte, which has traditionally had the same magnetic pull on young people in the southern part of West Virginia that Columbus had on the northern part.
But, politicians in those states were wrong to complain because we weren’t exporting our problems. We were exporting our future, our best and brightest. The simple fact is that, collectively speaking, our emigrants are better than those of us who stay behind. They are younger, better educated, and more entrepreneurial. Their emigration constitutes a brain drain on a scale typical of third world countries and the consequences range from the absurd to the devastating.
It has become routine to hear our Governor happily announce that West Virginia’s unemployment rate is at or below the national average. What he neglects to point out is the reason. Our success owes not to our performance in creating jobs, but rather to our astonishing ability to eliminate workers. We do it in three ways.
First, we send those who want to work but can’t find jobs in West Virginia to other states. Second, some of those who remain simply stop looking for work and are, therefore, not counted among the unemployed. And third, we are the nation’s leader by a wide margin in the percent of workers who have been designated as disabled and, consequently, not employable.
These trends have reached absurd proportions in the coal fields of southern West Virginia. The populations in Logan and Mingo Counties are less than half of what they were in 1950. And the population of McDowell County has declined by an almost incomprehensible three-quarters. Of adults who remain in McDowell County, half are officially disabled. Today there are only 5,500 jobs in McDowell County to support a population of 27,000. Once upon a time the population there was nearly 100,000.
But what the numbers fail to communicate is the damage done to families and to the fabric of life in our communities. When populations go into decline the corresponding decline for some enterprises is merely proportional.
A community that has three gas stations may end up with only two. But social, cultural, and entertainment enterprises often vanish altogether and that, combined with an absence of educated and able workers not only impoverishes life in those communities, but removes any incentive that individual or corporate entrepreneurs might have to locate there. When that happens, communities go into an economic death spiral such as the one that has left McDowell County with almost no private sector economy.
There are a few signs that state political leaders are beginning to recognize emigration and the brain drain as problems. A bill in the statehouse that would provide tax incentives to college graduates who remain in-state. However, it will only be effective if college graduates have jobs to go to. That will require new thinking within state government in the areas of taxation and economic development to focus less on extractive industries, light manufacturing, and other traditional businesses and more on providing supportive environments and funding for small start-ups and the entrepreneurial self-employed whose services can be sold to out-of-state clients.
West Virginia has few such businesses now, so there is little political pressure within the state to develop such policies. Politicians are more inclined to do things that benefit existing constituents rather than hypothetical ones. But, for West Virginia to succeed, that will have to change.