West Virginia truly is a very beautiful state. Just drive north on I-77 during almost any season and you will be thrilled with the scenery, particularly in the fall. Yet, all this beauty can’t hide some shocking facts that I learned during Army basic training in the 1960’s. Some of the soldiers from rural areas of West Virginia, Kentucky and parts of Southern Virginia who were in my barracks were incredibly poor and lacked the education to escape their poverty-stricken situations. In fact, several of these young troopers couldn’t even read or write. Current data tells me that things haven’t changed much in parts of these states.
The personal finance website WalletHub evaluated the economies of the 50 states, plus Washington, D.C. in June; West Virginia’s is ranked 50th. This state of almost 1.8 million is 50th in economic activity and 51st in innovation potential. WalletHub put WVA at 51st in the critical statistic of median annual household income or, shall we say, dead last. It’s the third to lowest in high tech jobs and also last in startup activity. Another WalletHub study ranks the state fifth highest in terms of the most at-risk youth, which is tragic. The future of all states is dependent on its young citizens.
In the past decade, the United States had the slowest population growth since the 1930s, according to a study of census data by the Washington Post. The population in three states, however, actually declined and the loss in residents was highest in West Virginia at -3.2%, most of it from rural areas.
The median age in WVA is between 42 and 43 compared to the national average of 38 and the state is just one of two where deaths have exceeded births since 2010. In fact, this 90+% White state actually had over 200,000 more residents in 1950 than it has today. And the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service projects that West Virginia’s population will just keep shrinking through 2040.
Still, WVA isn’t all that much worse off than a large number of Republican-controlled states. They usually comprise nine out of the 10 most dependent on federal government transfer payments, like Social Security and grants for health care and education. Typically, these federal dollars exceed what their residents and businesses pay in federal taxes. The largess they get, of course, comes mostly from blue states that pay more in taxes to the federal government than they get back. West Virginia is the fifth most dependent on federal help in 2021, according to WalletHub, and has always been one of the 10 most dependent since I started keeping track a decade ago.
Among the poorest 25 states based on median household income in 2021 – all but several of which are totally controlled by Republicans – West Virginia’s median of $46,711 is next to the poorest and 16% of its population is impoverished, according to another personal finance website MoneyWise.
It reported that West Virginia is one of the worse states for education – based on U.S. Department of Education statistics – with one in five children living below the poverty line and over 10,000 being homeless in the 2019-2020 school year. “If you can find a good reason to live here,” says MoneyWise, “housing is very affordable.” To me, this means that West Virginians aren’t even able to build significant wealth by owning a home.
You know what all of this is leading to, of course, an attempt to show why West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition to paid family leave and expanded health care provisions in President Biden’s Build Back Better Act, among others, will hurt his constituents.
It’s obvious why he opposes a provision that would reward utilities that transition to clean energy while penalizing those that don’t. His state is a significant natural gas producer and coal-fired electric power plants accounted for 91% of the state’s electricity generation in 2019, according to the Energy Information Agency. Also, Manchin represents the second-largest coal producing state and reportedly is the founder of the coal company that his son runs.
While Manchin has become the hero of conservative billionaires, the Charleston (WVA) Gazette-Mail decried his successful efforts to gut clean energy portions of the BBB Act, “Manchin has given credence to the claims that he is more motivated by obeisance to the coal and gas industries than to the health of his constituents; that Manchin, personally, and his campaign’s fundraising, benefit more financially by perpetuating climate change than by attempts to avert it.”
Well, the good Senator from WVA is like many members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, beholden to special interests that fund their campaigns. This unfortunate democracy weakening result occurred because five conservative SCOTUS justices cavalierly decided in the 2010 Citizens United case that corporate money was speech protected by the First Amendment. I believe this decision effectively stifles the voices of ordinary American voters who don’t have powerful lobbyists in Washington to protect their interests from the abuses of well-heeled energy companies and other large corporations.
A recent Washington Post article quoted Manchin as saying, “I don’t believe that we should turn our society into an entitlement society.” Well, I don’t know how “entitled” West Virginians are but it’s clear to me that without greater federal help – like the full BBB Act provides – they may never escape their current dire straits.