September 14, 2021

Regrowing West Virginia

 It’s no secret that West Virginia is facing some pretty serious demographic problems, even aside from our spiking COVID-19 spread.

For starters, we have one of the oldest populations, a trend to which I am contributing. We have long been at or very near the bottom in terms of workforce participation.

Not only do we have more deaths than births, but we’re rapidly losing population. Between 2010 and 2020, state population has dropped by about 3.2%, or almost 59,000 people. For comparison, the population of Charleston is about 48,000.

The population loss is more than the combined populations of Pocahontas, Webster, Gilmer, Pleasants, Pendleton, Calhoun, Tucker and Wirt counties. We’ve also been at or near the top in terms of overdose death rates.

According to the West Virginia Center for Excellence in Disabilities, the state has the highest rate of people with disabilities, at 1 in 5, although I’ve seen much higher estimates. We’ve also long been at or near the bottom in terms of median income and the top in terms of poverty rates.

Taken together, these are some pretty serious challenges.

If we’re going to survive, let alone thrive economically and culturally, one obvious solution is to be a welcoming place for new arrivals from around the world.

Welcoming immigrants isn’t exactly a new thing for West Virginia. One of the first acts of the newly formed government of West Virginia was the appointment in 1864 of Joseph Diss Debar, himself an immigrant from France, as commissioner of immigration, with the goal of encouraging people to settle here. Something of an artist, he is perhaps best known for designing the state seal.

In 1870, he published the West Virginia Hand Book and Immigrant’s Guide. Diss Debar’s efforts would eventually be far surpassed by agents from coal and timber companies who scoured Europe, often painting a rosy picture of life in the Mountain State that didn’t meet the reality.

Along with immigrants from overseas, the state’s population and workforce was increased by the internal migration of many Black Americans from the deep South.

According to local historian and longtime journalist James Casto, “Over the decades, countless Italians, Poles, Serbs, and Turks were put to work building railroads, cutting timber, and running sawmills. Other industries, too, benefited from immigrant labor. Even before the Civil War, German and Swiss immigrants traveling up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers found jobs in the iron works located in the Wheeling/Weirton area. English and Belgian craftsmen were recruited to work in the state’s glass factories. Germans came to brew beer. Talented Italian stonemasons crafted fine homes, buildings, and walls, many of which can still be seen.”

Ken Fones-Wolf and Ronald L. Lewis wrote, in probably the most complete single source on this issue, “Transnational West Virginia: Ethnic Communities and Economic Change, 1840-1940,” “In sum, it was the skills and the labor of these migrants that made modern West Virginia.”

It didn’t always go well for the newcomers. Some agents were deceitful and greedy. Some new arrivals were kept in virtual peonage or wound up working and living in appalling conditions. Of course, it was the coal mines that would be the biggest consumer of immigrant labor — and sometimes lives.

A 1911 report to Congress breaks down mine employment by ethnicity in detail for the Fairmont and Elk Garden, New River and Kanawha, and Pocahontas coalfields. Aside from native-born Americans of European and African origin, among the “races” of immigrants identified as working in the mines in the early years of the new century are, in no particular order and using the original terms and spelling:

Russian Hebrew; Hebrew other than Russian; Italians; Poles; Slovakians; Russians; Magyars (Hungarians); Slavish; Lithuanian; English; German; Litvich; Greek; Welsh; Irish; Scotch; Swedish; Belgian; Danish; Syrian; Bohemian; Bulgarian; Austrian; Slovenian; Ruthenian; Montenegrin; Herzegovinian; Dutch; Macedonian; other Slav races; and other southern or eastern European races.

(It’s interesting to note how slippery the socially constructed notion of “race” is and has always been.)

Under tough and sometimes brutal conditions, this mixed multitude managed to bridge differences and forge bonds of solidarity in ways that enriched our culture and contributed to the nation at large.

Given the recent 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain, it’s good to remember that many of those who marched for the rights of workers to organize were immigrants from overseas.

And in modern times, immigrants punch above their weight class when it comes to contributing to West Virginia’s economy. According to the American Immigration Council, while they make up only 2% of the population and labor force, their households accounted for $628.7 million in after-tax spending power in 2018. The 1,200 or so immigrant-owned businesses in West Virginia generated $36.2 million in business income. Plus, adult immigrants are about twice as likely to have college degrees as native residents.

West Virginia’s immigrant population also paid over a quarter-of-a-billion dollars in taxes, to the tune of $185 million federal and $72.8 million state and local. While there weren’t many more than 100 people eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status in 2018, they paid an estimated $270,000 in state and local taxes.

These are the kinds of economic and cultural contributions that could slow — and eventually reverse — our steady decline. Various immigrant groups have added much to West Virginia’s history, and they could add much more in the future, but only if we put out the welcome mat.

(This appeared as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

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