Blog Posts > Rural West Virginia Left Behind in Key Areas

Rural West Virginia Left Behind in Key Areas

Written by Sean O'Leary on November 9, 2018

Charleston Gazette-Mail – The United States has enjoyed over eight years of one the longest economic recoveries on record, but a closer look shows two very different economies in West Virginia. Story link.

While the state’s urban areas have been characterized by moderate growth, more educated workers and higher incomes, the state’s rural areas have seen higher rates of poverty, less education in its workforce and nearly a quarter-century of no net job growth, according to a new West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy report. Rural West Virginia lags behind the rest of the state in several key areas, but there is hope for growth in prosperity in those areas.

Much has been made of the fact that West Virginia is one of the few states to lose population over the past decade. However, that loss has largely occurred in the state’s rural areas. Between the 2000 and 2010 decennial census, West Virginia’s metro areas saw an increase in population of nearly 50,000 people, a 5 percent increase. In contrast, rural West Virginia experienced a population loss of roughly 4,600 people, a 0.6 percent decline.

West Virginia has historically been one of the poorest states in the country, a fact that is even more true for the state’s rural areas. The median household income in rural West Virginia of $39,741 is $5,880 lower than median household income in the state’s urban areas, and $3,600 lower than the state average.

With low income levels, it is unsurprising that thousands of West Virginians are struggling to make ends meet. In 2016, the state’s poverty rate was 17.9 percent, the fifth-highest in the country, with more than 319,000 West Virginians living in poverty. In rural West Virginia, poverty is even more prevalent. The poverty rate for rural West Virginia is just under 20 percent, two percentage points higher than the urban poverty rate.

West Virginia has seen relatively weak job growth in recent years, with the state yet to gain back the jobs lost during the latest recession. West Virginia has about 9,000 fewer jobs today than it did in 2007, and its labor force has shrunk by about 34,000 workers. While job growth has been largely stagnant in the state’s urban areas in the 10 years since the recession, the state’s rural areas have been plagued by job losses. Between 2007 and 2016, rural West Virginia lost more than 21,000 jobs, a loss of over 8 percent.

Rural West Virginia had fewer jobs in 2016 than in 1990. In other words, all of the job growth in West Virginia over the past quarter-century has occurred in the state’s urban areas.

The people living in rural West Virginia typically have poorer health, lower educational attainment levels, lower wages, are older and have fewer job opportunities outside of industrial and extractive industries.

Sustainable growth and broader economic growth can occur in rural areas of the state if policymakers put forth policies that invest in the people and public structures that provide the foundation for economic opportunity and make necessary quality-of-life improvements.

These policies can include: expanding high-speed internet; addressing the opioid crisis and improving rural health; enacting policies to boost wages and labor force participation; tax reforms that would provide revenue to invest in the state; and policies that reduce racial disparities.

Sean O’Leary is a senior policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

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