As most West Virginians know, the state’s population trend has been on a downward slope since the 1950s. The state had a larger population then than it does today in 2021. This is despite the nation’s overall population more than doubling over the same time period.
However, something may be starting to shift.
Net Migration Trends are Changing
First, the basic components of population change dynamics: birth rate, death rate, in-migration, and out-migration. Unfortunately, when evaluating West Virginia’s population woes from any of those metrics, a bleak picture is painted. However, with the US Census Bureau’s recently-released report, there is a positive development on the horizon.
From July 1, 2020, to July 1, 2021, West Virginia experienced a positive net domestic migration trend to the tune of 2,343 more people moving into the state than moving out of the state.
To be clear, West Virginia’s population is still shrinking. This is due to low birth rates and high death rates exacerbated by high overdose rates and an aging population. But, a major component of population growth – domestic migration – has flipped positive for what appears to be the first time in a long time.
The basic definition of positive net domestic migration is pretty simple. More people are choosing to move in from other states than are choosing to move out to other states.
What about West Virginia’s main competitors? The results are very encouraging if you are rooting for a West Virginia renaissance:
- Virginia: negative 8,995
- Maryland: negative 19,871
- Ohio: negative 3,128
- Pennsylvania: negative 3,194
- Kentucky: positive 10,022
West Virginia has vastly outperformed its neighboring states with the notable exception of Kentucky. Taken another way, on the margin, more people looked at West Virginia and said, “I would rather move there,” than four out of five of its contiguous neighbors. Now, it remains to be seen whether this good news is simply a blip on a downward trend. But, I’m hopeful that it is the beginning of something monumental for West Virginia.
Why Net Migration May Have Changed
There are many, many reasons for people to move from one state to another. However, it is rather uncontroversial that, all the things being equal, people enjoy lower taxes, more education options, and a friendlier business environment. There can be no doubt that West Virginia has taken significant steps to address nearly every one of those realities over the last several years. When combined with a low cost of living, beautiful scenery, and a slower pace, the reasons why more people decided to move to West Virginia than move out are not quite so mysterious.
Perhaps the USA’s most well-kept secret is starting to become a little less well-kept. As we shut the door on another year in West Virginia’s history, perhaps we will look back and point to 2021 as the beginning of a new future … a West Virginia Miracle.
Happy New Year, everyone!
Garrett Ballengee is the Executive Director of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.