January 19, 2020

Why WV needs immigrants

For pretty much every year since 2008, I've worked with the WV Center on Budget and Policy on a report called The State of Working West Virginia. Each year, there's a different focus. This time around the spotlight was on the state of West Virginia's immigrant population, which is tiny in comparison to most states but contributes greatly to our economy and culture.

We released the report last week as part of an event launching Many Roads Home, a new social media effort that highlights the stories and contributions of the state's immigrants.

We have a working agreement on the division of labor for these projects: the folks from the policy center, such as this year's co-author Sean O'Leary, do the hard parts with numbers and graphs. I do the easy parts.

It was pretty easy to point out why WV needs immigrants. Here's an excerpt with the punch line:

In 1950, the US population was over 1,50 million. West Virginia’s population that year reached its all-time high of slightly over 2 million.
Fast forward to 2019. The US population has more than doubled from the 1950 level to over 329 million. West Virginia’s population has declined by around 200,000 over the same period. A 2002 analysis by the West Virginia Health Statistics Center found that, if nobody had either moved into, nor out of, West Virginia for the 50 years between 1950 and 2000, the normal rate of population increase would have resulted in a state with 2,605,345 residents. That number would have been much higher today. 
The state and its communities are facing some serious demographic problems:
*West Virginia is among the oldest states in terms of median age.
*It has the lowest workforce participation rate, which hovers around 50 percent of its eligible population. The national average is around 63 percent.
*As of Dec. 2017, 73,879 West Virginians of all ages received Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) for a disability.
*By 2018, 26.3 percent of West Virginians, or 475,744 individuals, received Social Security or Social Security Disability Insurance.
*Between 2010 and 2018, there were 19,000 more deaths than births.
*According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, West Virginia has the highest age adjusted death rate from opioid overdoses.
*Between July 1, 2017 and July 1, 2018, the state lost 11,216 people, a rate of over 30 people per day.
*Public school enrollment declined by 4,122 students in the last year.
These trends indicate a serious downward spiral. If not reversed, they could spell a more or less slow death to West Virginia’s communities. To thrive—or even to survive—West Virginia needs to be, and be seen as, a welcoming place for new arrivals from around the world. West Virginians have done this before under tough conditions in the days of industrialization, bridging differences and forging bonds of solidarity in ways that enriched our culture and contributed to the world at large. We need to build on that tradition.

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