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Will the West Virginia diaspora ever end?

It’s been written about before. There are few if any people in West Virginia who don’t know someone who grew up here, left the state for an opportunity and never returned except to visit. This newspaper did a long series of articles on the subject 20 years ago, and little has changed.

To borrow a cliche, the topic has been beaten to death. There’s little new left to say, but every now and then, it must be said again. Now is one of those times.

Last week the Census Bureau released state-by-state results from the 2020 census. The official population count for West Virginia was 1,795,045. That was a decrease of 64,770 from the 2010 census and the lowest count since the Census Bureau counted 1,763,331 people in 1970.

Three states had population losses in the census. West Virginia’s was by far the largest.

The immediate result is that West Virginia’s membership in the U.S. House of Representatives will drop from three to two. Longer term, the result is that the image of West Virginia will remain the same — a state where more people move out than move in.

People move out of every state, but not every state has net outward migration the way West Virginia has had for so long. Some states are better than others at attracting people to relocate there. They don’t need gimmicks like a $12,000 bonus or free golf for a year.

This fact that West Virginia continues to lose population can spawn all sorts of discussion about the economy, roads, taxes, education, politics, corruption, the environment, health, health care, culture, climate, recreation, image, attitudes … there are at least 64,770 things to talk about.

They all boil down to this: How do we make West Virginia a state that outsiders want to move to? For the moment, let’s focus on one. West Virginia can be a great place to have a life, but to have a life you need to make a living, and that is one problem we just can’t seem to solve.

Much of West Virginia’s economy has been built on industries of the past. So far its leadership has shown it is unable or willing to build the physical, financial and human infrastructure necessary to compete for the industries of the future.

But none of the problems listed above are the domain of any one person or body of people — elected or unelected. If there were a simple or easy answer to this, it would have become obvious by now, action would have been taken and the problem would have been solved.

The best strategy now is for each person to do his or her best to make this a better state to live or work. Obey the law. Don’t litter. Vote, and hold your elected officials accountable for making decisions that truly improve the state. Resolve divisive social issues peacefully. Spend your money with companies that support West Virginia and West Virginians. An accumulation of small victories could lead to the big one.

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