West Virginia is losing population faster than any other state in the country, according to newly released U.S. Census figures.
West Virginia lost nearly 3,300 residents last year, the Census Bureau said. That amounts to about 0.2 percent of the Mountain State’s 2013 population.
While that might not sound like a lot, it’s the largest drop, accounting for population, of any state in the nation.
Only five other states — Vermont, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Alaska — lost population last year, according to the Census, which estimated changes between July 1, 2013, and July 1, 2014. Illinois lost about three times as many people as West Virginia, but its population is seven times larger, so it is losing people at a much slower rate.
West Virginia’s population losses were not limited to any one area. Of the Mountain State’s 55 counties, 39 lost residents.
Census projections have long predicted a declining population in West Virginia, one of the nation’s oldest states.
Census projections released in 1996 predicted that West Virginia would have 1,851,000 residents in 2015. As of last July, the state already had dipped below that projection.
The size of last year’s drop in population surprised Christiadi, an economist and demographer at West Virginia University who studies and projects the state’s population.
“I am not surprised that we lost population,” said Christiadi, who goes by only one name, “but the fact that we lost that much, that’s a bit bigger than I expected. That’s quite big for West Virginia.”
There are two factors in population loss or gain — natural increase and migration.
Natural increase is just the difference between how many people are born and how many die. Last year, West Virginia had a negative natural increase of about 1,300 because 1,300 more people died than were born. (Only one other state, Maine, had more people die than be born last year.)
The Census figures show that West Virginia also saw a net loss of about 1,600 people to migration — people moving to other states or other countries. (The natural increase figure and the migration figure are estimates and, thus, do not add up to the total population loss.)
From the Southern coalfields to the Northern Panhandle, almost every part of West Virginia is losing population, according to the Census figures.
Kanawha County lost nearly 1,200 residents last year, the most in the state, but remains the largest county by a wide margin.
Charleston’s metropolitan area, which includes Boone and Clay counties, lost about 1,800 people. At 2.8 percent, Clay County’s population loss was the highest.
South of Charleston, every county except for Lincoln and Monroe counties lost population.
“That’s mainly driven by economics,” Christiadi said. “Our economy is not doing as well as a few years back, and one of the reasons is the coal production is declining, coal demand is declining.”
The coal industry’s travails, particularly in Southern West Virginia, are well documented, but counties in the heart of the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom lost population, as well.
Marshall, Wetzel, Doddridge, Harrison and Ritchie counties, all major gas producers, lost residents last year, according to the Census.
“The gain in employment in the natural-gas industry hasn’t been as big as we expected,” Christiadi said.
Ted Boettner, director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, called natural-gas drilling a capital-intensive industry, in that it requires lots of equipment and machinery but comparatively few workers.
“It doesn’t employ that many people, and a lot of the people that it does employ aren’t from West Virginia,” Boettner said.
Christiadi echoed that point, noting that in north-central West Virginia a lot of the people working in natural gas might live in neighboring states and, thus, would not be reflected in the declining population numbers.
The one region of West Virginia that is booming, population-wise, is the Eastern Panhandle.
Berkeley County saw the state’s biggest population gain last year, more than 1,800 residents, and Jefferson, Morgan and Hampshire counties saw gains, as well.
Berkeley, Jefferson and Monongalia counties had population gains of more than 1 percent last year.
“The Eastern Panhandle just keeps growing,” Christiadi said. “It’s driven mainly by people who work in D.C. They live in the Eastern Panhandle and they spend their money in that area, and that generates more jobs in other industries.”