Jim Justice, press briefing

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice during a press briefing.

West Virginia has a problem that has been coming for a long time. The issue has existed for decades, as coal and surrounding industries left the state. West Virginia’s population is declining.

In the last Census, the population in West Virginia dropped by 3.2% — or about 59,000 people — as reported from the Associated Press.

According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, rural counties have been hit harder by this population loss. This decline is attributed to both natural factors (such as more deaths than births) and migration, as many people, especially the younger generation, leave for greater economic opportunities.  

What is even more troubling is the fact the state is doing little to overcome these problems, even though they have the resources to do so. 

The West Virginia state budget is sitting on a surplus in recent years, due in part to the excellent job done by Gov. Jim Justice. WV MetroNews reports that the surplus is driven by severance taxes, which exceeded projected revenues by 240%.  

I’ll give credit where credit is due. The governor has done a fantastic job working with state legislators to craft this budget with a record-setting surplus. 

At the moment, we are sitting on $1.3 billion. This begs the question of why the state government is not using these resources to fix the massive problem of keeping people in West Virginia, as well as bringing in newcomers to offset natural population loss. 

West Virginia politicians have acknowledged this problem for a long time now. However, they have done little to remedy it. 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the number of representatives in the West Virginia state legislature from Gen Z was zero percent in 2020. Millennials make up only about 9%.   

This representation creates a real problem when thinking about the future of the state. 

In the eyes of these older legislators, it makes sense. Why worry about a problem that will not affect you? Why not focus on providing resources to things that will affect them more? 

The problem is that the prosperity of West Virginia lies in the hands of these people. What is going to be required of these members will be a commitment to the future of West Virginians. 

So, what will this look like? The surplus of money that the state is sitting on will be critical for this process. 

The state needs to start investing in things that young people care about when choosing a place to live in order to keep West Virginians in West Virginia and bring in newcomers to offset natural population loss

The first thing that needs to be done is to set state policies that incentivize businesses to move to West Virginia. I support deregulation and tax cuts and improving the infrastructure of the state to the degree that it will encourage a healthy business environment. 

Investments in the local highway’s bridges and roads will encourage job growth. Additionally, it will maximize productivity in already existing fields. Careers, rather than temporary jobs, can function as pipelines into West Virginia. 

Colleges in West Virginia such as WVU should function as more than just a four-year stopping point for young people on the way out. West Virginia colleges and universities should be attractive places to settle rather than means of escape.

I have seen many people from WVU leave the state to get a job that pays well, as the opportunity in the state is limited. Keeping and attracting highly educated people in the state will be important to sustaining our population.  

The second thing that needs to be done is an investment in mental health resources. Mental health is one of the most important things to younger generations because they see it as crucial for future success. 

Finding ways to create easily accessible resources for people will lead to an interest in the state.  

West Virginia is in a prime location in between the Northeast and the South. Though the geography of the state will present challenges, it is important to use this geography and nature to our advantage, while creating opportunities for growth in the future. 

The solution will take a great deal of time, just as it took time to fall into this problem in the first place. However, this should not discourage us from promoting future opportunities. 

We should think of this time as an investment that will be important to generations of West Virginians. 

Using some of the excess surplus and investing it in infrastructure and mental health resources   to lure in high paying jobs into the state will be critical to changing the trajectory we are on. 

Doing this will take commitment from the leaders of the state and, it will take commitment from young people to stand up to legislative leaders in the state. 

Ryan Hammond is a WVU senior Political Science Student. He is a former candidate for WV House of Delegates for District 94.