David M. Shribman
DRY FORK, WV – Nobody’s here.
Well, almost nobody. This unincorporated community is in one beautiful corner of the world, surrounded by mountains, quaint farms along the road, eight miles from not one but two ski resorts, and a state park that calls itself a conference center and resort. Most of the time the noises here are deeply still.
Today 1,085 people live here. In 1900 – when lumberjacks toiled in the thickly forested hills, a log mill stood on Red Creek, the community had its own railroad, and coal mines were operating nearby – Dry Fork had a population of 3,224.
This is a fortunate part of the state, endowed with breathtaking beauty, a growing tourism industry, and many perks, including an average family income 10 percent higher than the rest of West Virginia and a higher education rate twice that of West Virginia State. Yet the population has declined by two-thirds since the workers – the gandy dancers, as the men who worked the rails were called, the pick-and-shovel men who dug for coal, or the Pennsylvania and logging crews Nova Scotia, who used tongs and peveys to harvest the trees, filled the silence with their grunts. They extracted wood and coal from the area and sent the profits to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Cleveland.
That’s the story of West Virginia.
The latest chapter in this story is a new decline. Newly released data from the Census Bureau shows that West Virginia suffered the largest population decline in the country, a decrease of nearly 60,000 people, or 3.2 percent, in the decade between 2010 and 2020. It is one of seven states to do one in the next year The midterm elections of the year will lose a seat in Congress.
There are several explanations, all partial, all plausible. Poverty is one (roughly one in seven West Virginians qualifies for the national definition). Another job loss is (especially in the coal sector, which has lost more than half of its jobs in the last twelve years). Both are of course related. Likewise, drug addiction (West Virginia has by far the highest rate of opioid addiction – four times higher than Texas, almost certainly the result of the astonishing fact that seven out of 10 West Virginians were prescribed opioids.)
Unemployment is particularly high in the coal-fired southwestern counties of McDowell, Boone, Wyoming, Mingo, and Logan, which have lost at least a quarter of their jobs in half a decade as a result of environmental regulations and competitive natural gas prices. a competing fuel source. There, as elsewhere, the internet connections are pathetic, the roads beyond the highways are often winding, and the refugees with better prospects are usually younger, better educated and better educated.
“The result is a vicious circle in which the losses make the area less attractive and that drives more businesses out,” said John Deskins, who heads the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University. “It’s very difficult to stop that. All the tools at the government’s disposal are better suited to stimulating the development of areas that are booming than communities that are in decline. You are better at accelerating growth than reversing the momentum. “
West Virginia is witnessing the third decade of the 21st century what Iowa saw in the final decade of the 20th century, when small towns shrank, an agricultural credit crisis pinched many farmers, and broader economic changes weighed on the state’s economy. During these years some farmers burned their barns instead of paying taxes on them.
It was during this time – exactly 30 years ago – I was visiting Alden, Iowa when Linda and Tom Jass decided to give up the family’s corn and soybean fields near the Iowa River and Linda Jass’ parents, both over 70 years old, taking care of the work of the sheep and crops in a town that hadn’t had a grocery store, doctor or police officer in a generation. Tom Jass told me at the time that he had lost “a ton of money” on the richest land in the world. He had no idea where he was going, just that he was determined to go.
I caught up with him the other day and found that the couple left shortly after our conversation.
They moved to South Dakota, where his wife taught sixth grade and he managed farmland for absentee owners.
“I worry that small towns will have trouble,” said Jass. “But I’m glad we left when we did.”
Linda Jass has no regrets. “We enjoyed our new home and we love the city and we love being near Sioux Falls,” she said. “Our kids all found great spouses and it worked out really well. We still have family and friends in Alden, but we are based here in South Dakota. We stay where we are. “
What impressed me all those years ago, and what strikes me as particularly moving today, are the remarks made by her son Luke. “The chances that I will become a farmer in Alden are almost non-existent,” he said at the age of 14. “Farmers always have debts, they have no fun, they work hard and don’t get any of it” it. I’ll do everything except farms. “
He kept his word. Although he now works for Cargill Inc. agricultural power plant in Minneapolis, he works in the company’s IT department. “I’ve never liked it there so much,” he said of his hometown of Alden. “The possibilities weren’t there.”
West Virginia is determined to avoid the phenomenon that caused the Jass family to flee north. State lawmakers have passed bill making it easier for teleworkers to work outside of the state by removing sales and income taxes for the first 30 days of teleworking, and lawmakers will consider a proposal next year to pass the state for Make migrants more attractive to completely abolish income tax.
“This has been a big issue in the state and has been the driving force behind many of our policies,” said Sean O’Leary, a senior policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. “We cannot grow economically without people. As our population declines, the elderly and unhealthy members of our state still have growing needs. “
Between 2010 and 2018, 27,000 more people left West Virginia than moved in. It may almost be heaven, but the problem is that it’s almost empty.
David M. Shribman is the Editor-in-Chief of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email to email@example.com. Twitter: @ShribmanPG