In the weeks since the Census Bureau released its state-level population count showing West Virginia continues to lose population, there has been weeping and gnashing of teeth over this state’s continued inability to match other states’ population growth.
Solutions have been offered, but many have ignored one basic fact: West Virginia has as many people as its economy can support. This is bigger than West Virginia. Rural Appalachia as a whole struggles to maintain an economy that can compete with the Sun Belt and other prosperous regions.
As West Virginia is the only state that is entirely within the federally designated region known as Appalachia, its problems regarding economy and population stand out. In many ways, you can scratch out “West Virginia” and talk about “Appalachia” instead when discussing the state’s problems.
The Appalachian Regional Commission was formed in March 1965. It’s done good work. Without the ARC, the Appalachian Corridor highway system might never have come about, or it might have been developed later than it was. ARC money has helped with utilities, emergency services and other public needs. Appalachia is better off with the ARC than without it.
But the ARC alone cannot level mountainous terrain, it cannot unilaterally increase the skill levels of the region’s residents and it cannot eliminate the conditions that led to the opioid epidemic. A generation ago, the Appalachian stereotype was inbred moonshiners. Now that stereotype is “pillbillies.” It’s gone from one offensive stereotype to another.
There are at least two takeaways from this. The first is that West Virginia’s problem is bigger than West Virginia alone. The governor and the Legislature can do what they can to improve this state, but the ultimate solution lies beyond the boundaries of any one state.
The second is cultural. As the late columnist Dave Peyton tended to say, Appalachians are the last group of people in America that it is OK to stereotype and humiliate. How do you recruit people or industries to a region like that?
One reason the company formerly known as Ashland Inc. pulled its corporate headquarters out of this region nearly 25 years ago was that it had a difficult time recruiting executive talent to work here. Ashland Inc. relocated its corporate offices to Covington, Kentucky. Now known as Ashland Global Holdings Inc., it’s based in Wilmington, Delaware.
The problems facing West Virginia are not unique to the Mountain State. Solutions will not be unique to West Virginia. When the Census Bureau releases more information later this summer, we’ll have a better idea exactly what parts of Appalachia share the same problems as West Virginia in retaining residents.
Some of Appalachia’s problems can be addressed at the national level in terms of government and culture. Some can be addressed at the state or local level. Many will have to be addressed at the individual level.
The region’s problems can be solved as long as there is more money or power in their solution than in prolonging them. That’s not a simple task, but the region’s viablility and its sustainability depend on it.