West Virginia and China, so far apart in most ways, have one glaring similarity. For very different reasons, both have significant population declines that affect current and future economic conditions.
West Virginia’s population boom occurred in the first five years after World War II. In 1950, it peaked at just over 2 million. The long gradual decline began quietly in the late 1950s and has continued with an occasional growth spurt such as 1975-77.
The West Virginia Economic Outlook Conference this past fall reported that senior citizens are the only expanding population cohort in this state. In a recent article in the Charleston Gazette-Mail and reprinted in this newspaper, predictions are that by 2030, 25% of West Virginians will be 65 or older. The state now has more deaths than births.
West Virginia’s population decline followed the disappearance of manufacturing and coal industries that were the backbone of employment. Many of us remember when Inco, Owens-Illinois, Kerr Glass, Houdaille, Perry-Norvell, Corbin and others provided good-paying jobs for Huntington-area residents. Until enough good jobs return, there’s little hope of population growth from new arrivals to the state.
China’s population is also shrinking and aging; it will continue to do so because from about 1980 to 2016, it limited families to one child. Their problem follows the “law of unintended consequences” when a plan that looks good on paper ends up having more real-life negatives than positives; this also applies to China’s COVID-19 quarantine policy.
China’s government never saw what might happen when there were not enough young people to fill the jobs and how youth raised as only children would view having more than one child as undesirable. When we visited China some years ago, young women who talked with us explained that as only children they must look after their aging parents and grandparents, but if they married, they would have to look after their children and husband’s older relatives as well, as men aren’t tasked with those jobs.
Now China and West Virginia have similar problems. Both have aging populations and not enough young people to do the work that has been done in the past. There have been suggestions to bring back retirees. The trouble with that is that is many retirees aren’t interested in returning to the work force and eventually they will become too old or ill to work.
Two places with very different governments and economies are in the doldrums because they do not have enough people to do the work that should be done to make their economies successful. There is no quick fix to repair these population deficiencies. Neither has a population willing or able to readily produce more citizens, and neither is seeking immigrants. China still has the industries ready for employment, but West Virginia does not.
West Virginia needs to bring more industry such as Nucor or develop more home-grown industries with future potential like Solar Holler. Both China and West Virginia do not have a child-bearing age group that can solve their population deficiencies. Unless real change happens here, the state’s population will continue to decline, and so will the economy.
Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist and regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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