Taking a deeper dive on preliminary U.S. Census Bureau data showing West Virginia’s population declined by 3.2% in the past decade:
The state actually started out the 2010s with population growth, continuing a trend that occurred in the 1990s and 2000s. But from 2015 — the year Republicans took control of the Legislature — through 2020, state population fell 3.6%. Nearly three-fourths of that decline occurred during Donald Trump’s term in office.
That is a significant drop in just six years.
Going back to 1941, prior population drops were closely tied to massive declines in coal mining employment. Mechanization of the mines in the 1950s and 1960s caused job numbers to plunge, leading to an outmigration that did not end until the start of the national energy crisis in 1971 led to what we can now look back on as coal’s last big hurrah.
(Those of my generation may recall going to school or work in the dark during year-round daylight saving time, long lines at gas stations, the ability to buy gas only on odd or even days, and President Jimmy Carter telling us to turn the thermostat down and wear sweaters to keep warm.)
By the 1980 census, state population had grown 11.8%, to 1.95 million.
The 1980s brought another plunge in population, as the end of the energy crisis caused demand for coal to fall and coal companies continued to eliminate jobs through advances in mechanization of the mines (many paid for through Arch Moore’s Super Tax credits) and growing reliance on mountaintop removal mining.
By 1990, West Virginia had seen an 8% population loss, dropping to 1.81 million.
Then, the 2000 and 2010 census saw the first consecutive decades of state population growth since the 1920 census and 1930 census, albeit modest growth of 0.8% in the 1990s and 2.5% in the 2000s.
Which makes the population loss of the past six years even more disturbing. This drop cannot be attributable to a downturn in coal, since the industry has diminished to the point where coal employment no longer plays any significance in driving state population numbers.
No, there is something more fundamental happening here. As I alluded to last week, people are voting with their feet, either by leaving the state or by opting not to relocate here.
What’s the answer? I’m just a humble reporter, but it’s clear that if the policies of the past six years were intended to grow the state, they’re having the opposite effect.
Charleston lawyer and pastor David Fryson, in a recent Gazette-Mail op-ed, posited an intriguing theory regarding the decline of the Democratic Party in West Virginia, a premise he had posed to me in an earlier conversation.
Fryson theorizes the state party’s downturn began in 1996, when prominent Democrats, led by Joe Manchin, actively worked to defeat progressive party nominee Charlotte Pritt in the November election for governor.
I concur with Fryson mainstream state Democrats that year sent a message to voters that it is better to elect a Republican as governor than to hand the keys to the state over to a progressive Democrat. It also established that mainstream Democrats in West Virginia aren’t true Democrats at all, but are Republican-lite.
Also in 1996, in the State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton infamously told a Republican-controlled Congress and the people of the United States that, “The era of big government is over.”
Thus, in 1996, at both the state and national levels, it became clear that the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson had abandoned its core principals, and had become Republican-lite.
I often think of Will McAvoy’s monologue from “The Newsroom,” written by Aaron Sorkin, in which he explains that America is no longer the greatest country in the world. The words resound today just as they did when the program first aired in 2012:
“It sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons, we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors. We put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it, it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in our last election, and we didn’t, we didn’t scare so easy.”
The Democratic Party of FDR, JFK, and LBJ invested in America and the American people, had the audaciousness to aim for the moon at a time when American astronauts had yet to even achieve Earth orbit, and set out to end generations of poverty and discrimination.
Under Republicans and the Republicans-lite, that vision was lost.
Instead of being the means to achieve a collective good, government became the boogeyman, an ominous menace that threatens to show up on your doorstep deviously promising to help.
Instead of investing in America, Republicans and Republicans-lite cut government to the barest means, on the absurd belief that by shifting even more wealth to the rich and to giant corporations, some of that Mammon would trickle down to the middle and lower classes, all while our infrastructure crumbled and our institutions suffered.
That’s particularly true in West Virginia, where as noted, we rank near-last or last in vital categories of education, health care, economy and infrastructure.
That’s also why it’s so encouraging to see President Joe Biden attempting to move the Democratic Party and the nation back to its New Deal roots.
From the marvelous success ramping up vaccination production and distribution after inheriting a moribund program from the Trump administration, to passage of the American Rescue Plan and advocacy for the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, Biden is attempting to invest in America after years of neglect.
Friday a week ago, Biden addressed a topic with which I have some familiarity, passenger rail service.
Once undisputedly the best rail system in the world, Biden noted the United States now trails far behind most countries in Europe and Asia, including China, when it comes to passenger rail service, since those countries have made the critical investments in their infrastructure, including upgrading to high-speed rail, while America has permitted Amtrak to struggle to survive on a subsistence budget for 50 years.
Biden’s infrastructure plan would make much-needed investments in Amtrak, expanding service, improving performance, updating equipment, and of interest locally, potentially expanding operations of the Cardinal to daily service.
Biden understands that giving massive tax cuts to the wealthy and big corporations, hoping they deign to toss down a few dollars to the middle and working classes, is a profoundly absurd economic theory. (Unless, of course, you happen to be wealthy or a big corporation, or a politician owned by one or more of those entities.)
It makes much more sense to make the wealthy and big corporations pay their fair share of taxes, and invest in building the great big things, and providing vital programs and services, as America once did.
Back in the day, almost every household in West Virginia had pictures of two politicians in the living room: FDR and JFK. There was a reason for that, and there could be again.
Finally, Gov. Jim Justice has always played fast and loose with rules and regulations in his professional and political lives, but I find it particularly disturbing that, as a casino owner, he has now twice used a public forum to encourage gambling.
Friday before the Kentucky Derby, and previously, on the Friday before the Super Bowl, Justice closed his state COVID-19 briefings with appearances by Babydog, the governor’s pet bulldog, to make picks.
In each instance, Justice has encouraged viewers to place wagers based on the dog’s predictions.
Prior to the Super Bowl, Justice said, “She’s in charge. You don’t need to watch the game, just go bet on Tampa Bay.”
Prior to the Kentucky Derby, Justice gave Babydog’s picks for win, place and show, and said, “If you by chance would like to parlay them all into some kind of trifecta … Babydog is putting a stake in the sand.”
Some media outlets covered the dog’s appearances as comic relief, but levity aside, Justice has a significant conflict of interest as owner of the Greenbrier Casino.
While its likely that few viewers of the Babydog segments have the resources to stay at The Greenbrier in order to bet Babydog’s hunches, the casino has partnerships with FanDuel and BetMGM to operate mobile sports betting apps in the casino’s name. Both parties advertise heavily in West Virginia, particularly BetMGM.
I’m not privy to the contractual arrangements that Justice has with the two sportsbook providers, but would suspect it involves receiving a percentage of each company’s profits from wagering on the sports betting apps.
(Under state law and Lottery regulations, the sports app providers have to be affiliated with a licensed state casino in order to operate in West Virginia.)
In effect, Justice is using a taxpayer-funded public forum — the virtual COVID-19 briefings that are broadcast thrice weekly on West Virginia Public Broadcasting, YouTube, Twitter and other media outlets — to generate business for sports betting companies in which he has direct financial interests.
I’m not a lawyer, but that looks like a textbook case of violating the state Ethics Act’s prohibition on using public office for private gain.
I’m as big a fan of Babydog as anyone, but using a public forum designed to impart critical information to the public during a pandemic as a platform to shill for one’s private business interests is simply doggoned wrong.