Fifty years ago, the famous African American singer Paul Robeson forcefully sang the spiritual “Go Down Moses/Let My People Go” about people seeking to leave Egypt because of economic and social conditions imposed by the pharaoh.
In West Virginia, people have left the state for related reasons.
After World War II, mine mechanization and the increased shift to surface mining caused the migration of coalfield families to Ohio and Michigan. Post-WWII job growth was still booming in those states. Later on, another shift occurred to the south. The overall result was the loss of a congressional seat then held by Harley O. Staggers. Today, redistricting is again imminent, as West Virginia will lose another congressional seat, resulting in a 50% reduction from its original four to two.
What caused the exodus? One reason clearly cannot be taxes, which are already comparatively low. Phil Kabler, in a recent Gazette-Mail column, noted the fiscal note compiled by Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow on the original version of the West Virginia Senate’s income tax plan (Senate Bill 600). Muchow pointed out that “states without income taxes are not tax-free paradises, that those states make up the revenue through myriad other taxes, including consumption taxes, business and corporate taxes, and property taxes that are considerably higher than comparable taxes in West Virginia.”
Muchow noted that residential property taxes in Florida are 2.3 times higher than West Virginia’s, Texas’ property taxes are 3.5 times higher and commercial property taxes are double in both states. Kabler noted that Tennessee has property taxes 56% higher than West Virginia’s, has the nation’s highest sales tax, at 9.55%, taxes food at 6.25% and imposes an additional 2.75% sales tax on luxury items. In retrospect, those concerned about taxes already would be flocking to West Virginia.
The exodus isn’t the result of people simply wanting to leave, either. Strong family ties have continued to pave the road to Columbus and Detroit. Dr. John Photiadis, a former sociology professor and researcher at West Virginia University’s Appalachian Center, once did a study of what it would take for people to move back and concluded people would take a substantial income cut to return.
The reasons that people left relate to employment and the absence of diversified job opportunities in the coalfields. This also relates to education, health care, infrastructure, affordable housing, transportation and other socioeconomic conditions.
In essence, firms, increasingly technologically focused, are not interested in locations with a potential labor force that ranks 49th in the percent of its children who live in “near poor” families, that trails the nation in the percent of residents with a college degree, that is among the lowest in the percentage of residents over 25 who do not have a high school diploma and where management personnel would not have a comfortable environment.
It’s also unlikely that the CEOs of the biggest companies whose median compensation reached a record of $13.7 million each in 2020 will invest in constructing gated environments like the coal barons did when coal was a magnet. Their tax-free wealth will flow to places where those who inherit it will want to live comfortably.
A low income tax rate would permit the wealthy to use West Virginia and contribute nothing to improving conditions, similar to what already exists with the major landownership of West Virginia’s natural resources. In the meantime, the exodus of those who can get out will continue, leaving behind those who cannot. The problem will, therefore, be unsolved and become worse, unless there is a substantial investment in improving education, living conditions, infrastructure and affordable housing.