Research suggests that West Virginia is expected to lose as much as 19,000 residents by 2030. According to the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, this decline is driven by a natural population decline, where more residents are dying than being born. Another driver is the "in" versus "out" migration of the state. The collapse of the coal industry in the southern counties, for example, has forced families to pull up stakes in search of employment in states with more economic diversity. With a smaller working age population, it is difficult to even think of developing new enterprises in the Mountain State.
West Virginia served as the engine of the industrial revolution in the United States. Today it looks as though its people, the fuel of the engine, were given little back. West Virginia has been listed as the "most depressing" state in the country and taking a drive through the rural counties...it isn't hard to see why. Driving home I will take county route 3 between Charleston and Beckley. When descending into the valley, with the glare of chemical manufacturers in my rear view, I see abandoned gas stations, deserted mechanic shops, and rows upon rows of worn down mobile homes. There's a new diner that opened so I stop in. The walls are filled with football merchandise and tributes to the coal miner. There's a faint country station coming through playing what's hot on the weekly top 40, but what stood out most was the fact that at prime lunchtime, I am the only customer.
"How's business?" I ask.
"At first it was good, until they idled the mine," one of the owners tells me. She and her husband both own and operate the diner. They have invested their entire life savings into a restaurant that, even on a good day, gets about 7 customers.
"No one can afford to eat out I reckon." She continues.
We chat, talking about how her neighbors just left for Ohio to find work. They were a young couple with one child and one on the way. When the mine went idle her neighbors wife tried finding a job as close to home as possible. Local retail jobs, that are close to home, are coveted because it brings at least enough in to put some food on the table, a tradition of the "bust." But with only a handful of jobs in the area, retail and grocery stores have not able to afford to keep business open.
"By the time you pay bills and put gas in the tank, you're lucky to have enough to save."
The average commute to a city is an hour from the Coal River Valley. Families will schedule when to go buy food when it's time to visit the doctors office, or else risk paying more to go to work than payment received.
Four months later I would drive by that diner again, only to see the lights off and the building gutted. Another victim to economic instability.
This is not a unique story in the coalfields and thus not difficult to frame why depression is so high. With so many variables in determining how rural communities can develop in WV, one must ask the hardest questions, Can we rest on our laurels? Can we continue to perpetuate the identity of our state and its people based on a fixed point in time?
Senator Robert Byrd said, "West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it." We no longer live in the industrial age. Mechanization made manpower obsolete in the mining sector and we are now seeing the ramifications in our communities. But through all of the sacrifice and hardship, I believe there is a silver line in the dark cloud. Today science and technology, especially in agriculture, can be used in our efforts to revitalize and revision our rural communities that once pulled this nation up by the bootstraps. We can bring our children back home! We can put our people to work! But only if we can swallow that bitter pill called change, to stop looking at innovation as attack, and to accept that we have everything to lose if we cannot start truly looking forward.
- Adam Hall