It is distressing to learn once again that our state continues to experience a marked decline in population.

To quote Travis Crum in his recent report in this newspaper, according to the latest estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau: "The state's two most populated cities, Charleston and Huntington, recorded losing residents for an eighth straight year, a reflection of the state becoming one of the fastest shrinking in the nation relative to population size."

Additional perspective is provided by the realization that West Virginia is the only one of the 50 states that has lost population since 1950 and that our state's overall population has declined more than any other state for the past decade.

This is a stunningly disturbing trend. How many trained and qualified professionals - doctors, teachers, engineers, etc. - have we lost? How many entrepreneurs have relocated to other states, taking with them countless businesses and the jobs they might have created here? How many of our ambitious and talented have left us? Sadly, the projections are for more losses in the future, including the loss of one of our three representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives. (At one time we had six).

Yet where is the expression of concern if not alarm over these losses from our political and other community leadership? It should be noted that in the days since Mr. Crum's article appeared, to the best of my knowledge, not a single state politician, or any other leader for that matter, has made any response. Where are the study commissions, the call to arms by the governor, the special legislative sessions?

We understand there are many reasons historically for our population decline, including a weak transportation system, a challenging topography, a failure to diversify our economic base, a deficient educational system, and parochially jealous local governments.

Yet other states have overcome these and even more daunting obstacles. North Carolina comes to mind as a state that suffered the dramatic decline of at least two significant industries in terms of tobacco and textiles but yet has thrived with its emphasis on research and education, as well as banking and tourism.

Our tragic decline is most definitely not due to our people. West Virginians are as capable and as ambitious as the citizens of any other state. They want more opportunities for themselves and their children. They would like to see more of their children and grandchildren stay closer to home and not have to go elsewhere for better jobs.

Yet what solutions are being put forward by our business and political leadership? What solutions have been presented over the decades? Without disparaging or dismissing the genuine efforts of local, regional and state economic development agencies, it has not been enough.

We West Virginians should treat our state's population decline as a crisis of the first order and develop an appropriate, comprehensive approach that treats it as an emergency, albeit one requiring a long-term, sustained program. As critical as high-quality education is to all of us and to any efforts to reverse population decline, surely that decline also justifies intensive legislative attention, perhaps more than a single special session. The governor as the state's chief executive officer must lead this effort.

Finally, a simple, specific suggestion: To gain the attention of our state political leadership, we should consider adopting two state constitutional amendments. The first would mandate a reduction in the number of state delegates and senators comparable to the decline in population. The second would similarly reduce the salaries of all state elected officials in any year in which there is a population decline.

Aubrey King is a native West Virginian who retired to Huntington after a career in government relations and education in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Marshall University and The Johns Hopkins University.


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