The results are in and the people have spoken — with their feet.
West Virginia led the nation in population loss during the past decade, with 3.2% of us leaving for greener pastures, or, possibly, states that have seacoasts but lack personal income taxes.
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau confirmed that West Virginia’s population decline will cost the state a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and a dorm room in the Electoral College. It’s the latest consequence of a population drain that’s been trickling for 70 years, from a time when the state had three times the members of Congress it will have after the next election.
By 1963, enough people had left the state to eliminate the 6th Congressional District, where Robert C. Byrd cut his teeth before launching his Senate career. Ten years later, the 5th Congressional District, represented by members of the Kee family for 40 of its 70 years, was dissolved due to a lack of representees.
Numbers from the 1990 Census brought about the demise of the 4th Congressional District three years later, 100 years after its creation. Its seat was filled by Ken Hechler for nine terms, followed by an eight-term run by its last occupant, Nick Rahall, who moved on to represent the now extinction-bound 3rd District for 11 more terms. The 3rd District has been in existence since West Virginia’s 1863 birth year.
With the state’s three remaining congressional districts soon to be merged into two, it’s up to the Legislature to determine where the line separating them will be drawn.
A north-south dividing line seems to be favored over an east-west demarcation. Some observers have suggested following the cross-state path of a major east-west highway, like U.S. 50, U.S. 33 or Interstate 64.
I favor a boundary a bit less arbitrary than a road — the Slaw Line — first described in a 1992 Daily Mail article by Becky Fleming.
“Travel north through West Virginia and you cross a line invisible to the eye but vital to the stomach,” Fleming wrote. “South of that line, you can walk into any local grill and get a hot dog or barbecue nicely sweetened with a spoonful of cole slaw. North of that line — the Slaw Line, we’ll call it — they look at you in wonder when you place your order.”
Fleming placed the Slaw Line along the northern frontiers of Wood, Wirt, Calhoun, Gilmer, Lewis, Upshur and Randolph counties, and, presumably, extending on to the Virginia border. That line is almost identical to one separating Reds fans from Pirates fans in West Virginia in a 2014 Facebook Data Sciences survey, which also highlights the cultural differences between the two regions. Hopefully, by the time the new congressional boundary takes effect, the state will have taken strides to reverse its population outflow.
In addition to recently launched Ascend WV, which offers those able to work remotely $12,000 to live and work in the state for two years, I think we should be helping immigrants with targeted skills build lives in the state.
While immigrants currently make up only 1.6% of West Virginia’s population — the lowest rate in the nation — they account for 19% of what population growth has occurred since 2001.
It’s time to dig in and hold that Slaw Line!