If West Virginia had a marketing team, the 2020 U.S. Census would lead them to an troubling conclusion: Nobody is buying what we’re selling.
The census shows that across the country, people are leaving rural areas (either moving or aging out), with 86% of Americans now living in metro areas of 50,000-plus.
With the abandonment of rural areas and small towns accelerating in the past decade, they currently account for only about 50 million people of a nation of 330 million.
Unfortunately from a marketing perspective, West Virginia is mostly rural, and its rural areas lost population in the past decade at an even faster rate of 5.8%.
Fourteen of West Virginia’s 55 counties (all rural, many southern) lost 10% or more of their populations in the past decade, led by Pendleton County, where 2 of every 10 residents have exited.
While large cities and suburbs of large cities in the U.S. saw population growth averaging 9%, Charleston, Beckley, Weirton and Wheeling were in the top 10 metro areas in the U.S. for population loss.
People are flocking to metro areas. Just not our metro areas.
As the nation becomes more ethnically diverse, 92% white West Virginia remains one of the least diverse states in the union. Not very marketable.
At his Friday the 13th briefing, Gov. Jim Justice bemoaned the census numbers, saying, “This is a problem. A real problem.”
Being as delusional as he is, Justice used West Virginia’s population plunge as an excuse to again plug his disastrous income tax cut plan. As if thousands of people are going to rush into the state to take advantage of a tax shift that for the vast majority of us would be a wash at best.
Perhaps our marketing team should look at the few places in the state that are growing, and try to determine whether there are any lessons we could apply to other localities.
The three fastest growing counties in the state are Berkeley, Monongalia and Jefferson.
Berkeley and Jefferson both owe their population growth primarily to the fact they are suburbs (exurbs?) of the Washington-Baltimore metroplex, and, unfortunately, we can no more physically push other West Virginia counties closer to major metro areas than we can conjure up the oceanfront property that Justice so often laments we lack.
Which leaves Monongalia, which experienced 10% population growth in the 2020 census.
Monongalia County is everything West Virginia is not. It’s comparatively well educated, with 43% of residents having four-year college degrees, compared to 21% for the state. It’s slightly more diverse, with 89% of the population being white. It’s considerably younger, with a median age of 32.6 as opposed to the state median of 42.9.
Notably, unlike most of the rest of the state, Mon County is, for the most part, a blue county. Five of six legislators from Monongalia County are Democrats, as are two of three members of the County Commission.
The typical GOP response to the 2020 census is some blather about how the state has been losing population for years. But that’s not true.
In modern history, the 1990 census saw a 8% population drop, as coal mining employment plummeted as the end of the energy crisis of the 1970s caused demand for coal to tumble at a time when jobs in the traditional manufacturing, steel-making and chemical industries were disappearing.
However, in the 2000 census, state population grew 0.8% and, in 2010, 2.5%.
Republicans were in control for second half of the 2020 census decade, and the 3.2% population decline accelerated during that time, as outmigration increased sharply.
Cause and effect? Probably.
Not every county can have the economic engine of a major national university, but our legislators should study why Monongalia County has bucked the state trend for population loss.
We know it is comparatively highly educated, has good public schools by state standards, is comparatively diverse, has a world-class health care system and has the advantage of being relatively close to metro Pittsburgh, although unlike Berkeley and Jefferson counties, it does not function as a bedroom community for commuters to the Steel City.
We know Mon County is politically, culturally and socially progressive compared to most of the rest of the state.
Study Monongalia County. There may be lessons there for other counties to follow.
In the comedy classic “Animal House,” the most hapless member of the Delta Tau Chi pledge class is Kent Dorfman, given the fraternity name of Flounder, a nickname that fits him perfectly, since he flounders at practically everything.
I think the time has come to change Justice’s nickname from “Big Jim” to “Flounder,” given how he has floundered so haplessly in addressing the delta variant surge of COVID-19 in the state.
Early in the pandemic, Justice could rightly claim to be a national leader in the COVID-19 response, making West Virginia one of the first states to get nursing home residents and staff vaccinated and fast-tracking testing efforts.
At the time, Justice said he would follow the direction of the state’s best health care advisors and not act on political expediency.
Now, politics has become paramount, and Justice has turned impotent, afraid to take prudent measures that would save lives, even as state COVID-19 cases surged 65% in the past week.
He staged a vaccination incentive sweepstakes at enormous taxpayer cost in terms of prizes purchased and use of state resources, including the State Police and state plane, that mainly served to allow him to travel around the state and play game show emcee.
The delusional Justice could not bring himself to see the sweepstakes was a abject failure, with state vaccination rates actually declining during the time period of the incentive campaign, and now he is doubling down with a second sweepstakes that is all but assured to be a costly failure.
(You can be certain that if Justice still had a D behind his name, state Republicans would be screaming at the top of their lungs about wasteful spending.)
Meanwhile, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Virginia has slipped to 45th in the nation in percentage of total population fully vaccinated, at 39.35%.
And now, with the current surge of COVID-19 cases, a surge driven by Justice’s failure to convince half the state’s population to get vaccinated, Justice is making like another Animal House character, Chip Diller, who stood frozen as the homecoming parade degenerated into a riot, telling people, “Remain calm. All is well.”
Justice refuses to act, even as health experts including the CDC and his own COVID-19 czar, Dr. Clay Marsh, call on the public to resume pandemic public health measures, including wearing facemasks in indoor public settings.
Justice frankly admits his inaction is purely political, repeatedly saying a statewide mask mandate would be divisive and saying he wants to appease anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers in the state.
In other words, he wants to emulate GOP Govs. Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, whose inaction and detrimental actions resulted in 70,000 preventable hospitalizations and 4,700 preventable deaths in Florida and Texas in July and early August, according to The Commonwealth Fund.
Justice has concluded it’s hunky-dory to leave public health decisions to localities, school boards, county commissions and city councils — an ironic position, given that state GOP policy has been to follow the American Legislative Exchange Council playbook on local law preemption, and the Republican-controlled Legislature has passed multiple bills restricting the ability of cities and counties to enact ordinances stricter than state law.
That includes legislation barring cities from enacting gun safety measures to legislation this session that prohibits cities from restricting use of plastic bags, straws and utensils.
This session, bills passed one house of the Legislature that would have barred localities from enacting labor ordinances, including minimum wages higher than the state minimum, and would have made it a crime for localities to remove Confederate statuary from public grounds.
Of course, again, we don’t hear a peep out of Republican legislators at Justice’s defiance of their platform to preempt local laws and local authority. In this case, they’re more than happy to leave potentially divisive public health decisions to localities.
Local control is verboten — until the really tough decisions have to be made.
C’mon, Flounder. Time to man up and do the right thing, even if it’s not politically expedient.
Finally, the Gazette-Mail’s Lacie Pierson has done some excellent reporting unraveling Justice’s web of influence over Greenbrier County public schools.
Seems that Greenbrier County operates like an old-time company town, with seemingly almost everyone in the school system working summers at The Greenbrier, or having spouses or family members who work there, or having some other ties to the Justices and their myriad business interests.
If you want to work in Greenbrier County, you have to answer to Boss Justice.
That starts first and foremost with Jeff Bryant, who serves both as superintendent of Greenbrier County Schools and as entertainment director at The Greenbrier. (While I frown on disclosure of confidential complaints to the Ethics Commission, and detest political operatives who publicize complaints against election opponents, I will say that if you think Bryant’s conflict of interest warrants someone filing an Ethics complaint against him, you would be correct.)
Greenbrier East High Principal Ben Routson has publicly declared Justice to be the best candidate for the boys basketball coaching vacancy, citing his almost 500 varsity wins at the school.
However, Justice has historically had a recruiting advantage, in that he has recruited top players from outside the county, frequently by providing the players’ parent or parents with jobs at The Greenbrier or other Justice enterprises.
A reader reminded me that the starting lineup of Justice’s 2012 girls state championship team had three players who transferred from private schools in Knoxville, Tennessee, one from Roanoke (Virginia) Catholic, and one from rival Woodrow Wilson in Raleigh County.
(According to the Nov. 15, 2012, edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel, at least two starters returned to play at Knoxville Christian Academy the season after helping Justice notch his lone state championship.)
I’m sure our deluded governor believes that God has blessed him with a string of quality players over the years, not that he’s been gaming the system by bringing in ringers all this time.