West Virginia University has released a report that includes the sobering prediction that by the year 2030, our state’s population will have declined by 20,000 residents. The drop in population will really pick up steam by 2016. Even now, West Virginia is surpassed only by Florida in the percentage of the population over 65. Our state has 16 percent, while Florida has 17.3 percent.
But, according to the report, by 2030, nearly one-quarter of West Virginia’s population could be past retirement age. Deaths continue to outpace births. Outmigration is steady. Growth is taking place in only a few pockets of the state.
Wood County, however, was mentioned specifically in the report as an example of the kinds of business and policy factors that could change the population picture for West Virginia. Thousands of jobs – and the social infrastructure to sustain those workers and their families – could make an enormous difference for the state, particularly if this project serves as a model for other communities, and inspires further growth.
An oft-overlooked aspect in such economic development efforts is a plan to help keep young West Virginians employed in a place they want to put down their own roots, and raise their own families. We have all got to do a better job of putting in place the quality-of-life measures that will not only bring in businesses and workers from other states, but encourage native West Virginians to seek their opportunities right here at home.
There is more at stake than simply a few numbers on a university report. If the downward population momentum continues, West Virginia could lose yet another U.S. House of Representatives seat in the 2020 reapportionment. If residents think it is hard to get their voices heard in Washington, D.C., now, imagine the consequences if we were to lose another seat.
Statewide recruitment and retainment programs may be in order, but it is encouraging to know Wood County is already a step ahead of the game, and playing a part in the attempt to prevent the population crisis that could be just a generation away.