By Charles McElwee
The March 2-3 edition of The Wall Street Journal has a three-page feature article contrasting the booming economies of Midland and Odessa in West Texas, and the depressed economy of Charleston, W.Va., attributable to the City being “a victim of the state’s demographics and rural characteristics.”
The Charleston column focuses on the consequences to the City of being victimized, at least in significant part, from its being situate in West Virginia, including having (or being) because thereof
— a bustling Manna Meal soup kitchen, which is pictured;
— increased health-clinic patients;
— dependent on the State’s “out-of-favor coal”;
— an under-educated workforce;
— a lack of thriving metro areas in the State “that are key to prospering in today’s economy”;
— an unemployment rate well above the national rate;
— a significant drop in the State’s working-age population;
— a static employment in manufacturing in contrast to its rising in the nation as a whole;
— low retail and financial-services employment;
— low bachelor’s degree attainment compared to the national level;
— low rate of employment in advanced industries focusing on research and development, trailing most other states in that regard;
— increase in employment in lower-wage industries, while jobs in higher-wage industries have declined; and
— departures from the State of young people seeking “greater opportunities and better pay” elsewhere.
The article’s devastatingly negative characterization of West Virginia, and by extension that of Charleston, reinforces the already unfavorable perception that nonresidents have of our State and diminishes the likelihood of improving the City’s and West Virginia’s economy by enticing businesses to locate here.
The State’s population decreased from 1,853,000 in the 2010 census to a 2019 estimate of 1,790,000. West Virginia leads the nation in percentage population declines in recent years attributable to negative natural growth — births minus deaths — and net migration loss. Decreasing population is a sure sign of a declining economy.
Charleston’s population decreased from 51,277 in the 2010 census to a 2018 estimate of 47,929, nearly a 7 percent decline. West Virginia, along with Vermont, are the only two states in the nation whose largest cities’ populations are each less than 50,000—Charleston and Burlington, respectively.
Residents of Charleston are reminded daily of the large number of houses for sale, many at reduced prices, and commercial properties for lease that have remained so for months.
The economic outlooks for West Virginia, and by extension Charleston, are, in my opinion, bleak unless there is a dramatic change in the State’s failures to confront and reform, improve or ameliorate West Virginia’s three most pressing, interrelated problems:
(1) It’s public-school system, with a special emphasis on (a) improving teacher quality since numerous studies reveal that teacher quality is the most important source of variation in student achievement; and (b) replacing the State’s prevailing, outdated, nineteenth-century “factory or assembly-line model” of education, whereby all students are forced to learn at the same speed, in the same way, at the same place, and at the same time, and whereby, children are passed from grade to grade each year, largely irrespective of whether or not they absorbed what was taught, and install in place of that antiquated model a learning/teaching model that is “student-centered, self-paced, and involves mastery learning,” whereby students should adequately comprehend a given concept before proceeding to a more advanced one.
(2) The State’s moribund economy, especially the out-migration of its young people, and the failure to plan for the demands of a developing economy that is being shaped by a near constant onslaught of changes and unpredictable events, which requires intellectual agility or mental acuity in the governance and workforce of a business to readily anticipate, plan, adapt, and innovate to outwit the competition with greater ingenuity and be successful.
(3) West Virginia’s devastating drug problems, among the worst in the nation.
What needs to be achieved in the long term with respect to the State’s three most pressing problems require, in my view, a coordinated plan of action that is well-funded, enduring over at least five years, comprehensive, and rational, including, especially, staffs, nationally-recognized advisors in the subject areas, and highly-respected citizens who are, or will become widely-read in their subjects, and critical thinkers in analyses, people who have the ability to analyze information objectively, and make reasoned and objective judgments. Our young people, including those who remain West Virginians or who have exited the State, often referenced as millennials, should have a major role in the plan of action.
The State has not been lacking in having a dearth of speakers who proclaim that the State “oughta do” or “needs to do,” but has been notoriously lacking in “doing.” That has to change if the State is ever going to avoid being demeaningly depicted in national publications, as The Wall Street Journal did in its March 2 edition.
Another of the State’s negative traits is that it believes its perceived problems can be solved by ad-libbed, off-the-cuff, extempore proposals. The State’s most pressing problems, including the three identified and discussed above, are not solvable using that approach because they are too complex, too embedded in our culture, and require deep-seated, prolonged, critical thinking by persons who are widely read and informed by experts, which too many of our perceived leaders are adverse to pursuing, perhaps because they want instant gratification and political recognition as current achievers.
To be sure, there exist various laudatory, ad hoc efforts in the State to improve the State’s public-school system, such as the Public Education Collaborative at WVU; the State’s economy, such as WV Forward and West Virginia’s Development Office; and to ameliorate the ravages of drug use, such as the Health Sciences Center at WVU and a number of local efforts as in Huntington. Those efforts should continue.
Despite the commendable intentions and efforts of the new Mayor of Charleston, Amy Goodwin, the economic challenges facing the City are simply too enormous and too intertwined with those of the State to be overcome locally.
Such is true for mayors of metropolitan areas throughout the State, most of which have lost population over the past 10 years. These municipalities and their mayors should implore the State to address state-wide multiple pressing problems, such as are sketched above, which victimize cities with diminishing economies and ensuing loss of population.
Charles McElwee is a Charleston lawyer. The views expressed are his own. His email contact is [email protected] Rebuttal is welcomed.