looking up at the State Capital in Charleston

The balance of West Virginia’s population has been drifting northward since the 1950s. Political power seems to be moving now, too. Should our southern counties be worried?


Originally published in West Virginia Focus magazine

When Harrison County Delegate Tim Miley took oath in June 2013 as speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates, a remarkable thing went relatively unnoticed. For the first time in 100 years, the Senate president and Speaker of the House both hailed from northern counties.

It should come as no surprise, with the constant news of the northern counties’ economic growth. It seems, actually, a natural sign of things to come. But for the South, the timing of northern ascendancy—just as the coalfields are getting mined out—could be unfortunate. “Without political power to be sure we get at least our fair share of resources, our infrastructure will not develop. That consigns this part of the state to being a permanent backwater,” says Beckley lawyer and former Raleigh County Senator William Wooton. “Twenty or 30 years from now, absent the ability to transition the economy, it’ll be a beautiful area to drive through with very few people living here and no jobs.”

Is power shifting northward in West Virginia? Should the southern counties be worried?

Less Coal, Fewer People

In 1950, West Virginia’s demographic center was in northern Clay County, near mile marker 40 on Interstate 79. This point had moved southward every decade since 1880, the year first calculated by the U.S. Census Bureau, as the southern counties’ coal-based economy grew and thrived. But after 1950 the center reversed direction, moving steadily northward through Braxton County. It’s on track to cross into Lewis County by 2020, landing somewhere near mile marker 80—a difference of 40 miles in 70 years.

That migration is due in some part to population increases in the north, but much more to population losses from the south. The reasons are much discussed: coal mine mechanization, primarily, along with the departure of the chemical industry, and lack of economic diversity to temper the resulting job losses.

The social effects of decades of population and economic decline have been devastating. Among them, 30 to 50 percent of children living in poverty in many southern counties, high school graduation rates under 80 percent, and 30-plus percent of residents reporting only “fair” or “poor” health in the Centers for Disease Control’s ongoing and extensive telephone survey—far worse even than the 25 percent average in West Virginia, which as a whole reports the worst health in the nation. In every kind of quality of life measure, southern counties have come to dominate the bottom year after year.

This is not like coal’s cyclical downturns of the past. “I think we’ll always have a viable coal economy here in the south, but based on what the industry folks tell us, we’ve probably peaked out as far as production and employment,” says Wyoming County native and Hatfield-McCoy Trails Authority Executive Director Jeffrey Lusk. The data backs that up. Miner productivity is dropping now that the thickest, most accessible coal seams are mined out—from a peak of more than 10,000 tons per miner per year in 2000 to less than 7,000 tons in 2010 and continuing to plummet. It’s become clear the southern counties’ one-time bounty of extraordinarily high quality coal will never bring sustained wealth to their communities and residents. In fact, it’s left them impoverished—bringing to mind the economists’ “resource curse,” or the observation that regions naturally rich in oil, coal, or other natural resources often end up poorer than regions that have to work harder to produce wealth. A failure to develop other economic sectors is a primary reason.

Hardly Any Lights to Turn Out

When the coal was plentiful—observes Hamlin lawyer and oil and gas company owner Lloyd Jackson, a 1980s and ’90s Lincoln County senator who chaired the Judiciary and Education committees—residents made extraordinarily good incomes right out of high school and even before. “As that evaporates today, we find a lot of the workforce doesn’t have the education and skills,” Jackson says. “And the technologies haven’t been put in place. From broadband to mobile phones, a lot of parts of southern West Virginia are just devoid of those things. This has been baked in for a lot of years, and now it’s being served.”

Outside the Charleston-Huntington corridor, less than 25 percent of adults in the southern counties have education beyond high school, compared with more than 25 percent for many northern counties. Less than 80 percent of households—in some southern counties much less—have access to high-speed Internet, compared with close to 100 percent in many northern counties; cell phone coverage is lagging similarly. And the expense of putting water and sewer lines and good roads in the mountainous terrain has left many areas without.

All of this is not to minimize similar declines that have followed the loss of steelmaking in the northern panhandle. But while those northern counties have begun to lay over their existing infrastructure a new economy extracting and processing shale gas, the south has little of such infrastructure to build on.

As Go People, So Goes Representation

In the 1950s so many people lived in the 13 southernmost counties that they made up five entire Senate districts and part of another. That gave them 11 of 32 seats in the state Senate—more than a third of the voice in that powerful house.

Southern counties held the state’s economic prowess through much of the 20th century—and, with it, political power. They reared most of our governors. And when the occasional Senate president or House speaker came from the north, their most influential committees were largely headed up from the south. “Frankly, during most of my tenure in the Legislature, it seemed like most of the leadership positions were from southern West Virginia,” says U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers, who served as delegate from Cabell County in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s and as House speaker in the last decade of that. The same was true in the Senate, even as recently as the 1990s. “When I served in the state Senate every major position was filled by someone from south of the Kanawha River,” says Wooton, who chaired the Judiciary Committee.

Did that concentration of leadership mean attention and appropriations were a little likelier to flow southward? Maybe in some years. “For the distribution of scarce resources by any governmental body, people are naturally going to favor seeing those resources spent in the areas they represent. That’s just human nature,” says Jackson.

“There’s always been a little bit of friction between the North and the South. I know there have been feelings from some of the northern people that they just didn’t get their share of attention and leadership positions,” Chambers says.

Things may be different now. With the redistricting that followed the 2010 census, those 13 southernmost counties have only 8 of 34 seats in the Senate, or less than a quarter of the voice. The northernmost 15 counties, which had 8 seats in the 1950s, increased to 10. And now the leaders of the two houses of the Legislature are from Harrison and Marshall counties in the north—both counties coincidentally, but interesting to note, prominent in the new and growing shale gas industry.

Familiarity Breeds Support

If the South is to prosper again, it’s the business community that will make it happen, and some business leaders are watching the Legislature.

“Clearly there’s going to be more sympathy for mountaintop mining among southern leaders than the ones from the North,” says Dave Arnold, long-time white water rafting entrepreneur and co-owner of Adventures on the Gorge in Fayette County, when asked whether he thinks northern leadership will mean less support for southern needs. “It’s not going to hurt our business. Rafting is a statewide thing—some of our biggest supporters are far from the rivers. But clearly there are certain industries that are going to be hurt more.” If the state doesn’t put money into the South, change the education system and roads, he adds, “We’ll feel like we’ve been cheated.”

While southern leaders have lived the region’s history, northern leaders may be deeply unfamiliar with its needs and the opportunities to address them. “We receive a certain amount of funding from the state. And more importantly, there are regulations that affect us and we need the folks who write those rules to understand our project and how it works,” says Lusk, whose Hatfield-McCoy Trails Authority is one of the most dynamic and promising diversification efforts happening in the South.

“But it can be very difficult to get your arms around the concept of ATV riding being an economic engine,” he says. “Our biggest problem is going to be getting that northern leadership down to the town of Gilbert, or Man, or the city of Logan so we can say, ‘There is the ATV lodge, the ATV parts store, the ATV rental company that takes people on the trail,’ or, ‘Here’s a new restaurant.’ And it’s not just us; a new wood products park, a coal-to-liquids facility, we’re all going to have to work harder down here to educate the leadership. I think, with a more northern leadership, we would be remiss to not be concerned.”

What Do Today’s Northern Leaders Say?

Some northern leaders say today’s concentration of leadership in the North doesn’t necessarily reflect a trend. “This may have more to do with personalities, loyalties, allegiances, and friendships than anything else,” says Delegate Tim Manchin of Marion County, who ascended to the powerful House Judiciary chairmanship when Miley became speaker. Miley sees it similarly. “I don’t know that this necessarily happened due to population shift,” he says. “I think it depends more on the person and skills and qualifications and credibility among their peers they’ve earned over their legislative service.”

They’re backed up by the academic view. “There are waves that go through legislatures of strong individual personalities, people who are smart and ambitious, and they could be from any part of the state,” says West Virginia University political geographer Kenneth Martis. “Even though the north is growing fast, the bulk of the population still is in Charleston-Huntington and it’s going to take a long time, in my opinion, to make a significant shift in the political power base.”

In the Senate, where the 2010 redistricting resulted in a more obvious shift of representation from south to north, leaders see it more starkly. “As populations decrease in the South but explode in North Central West Virginia and the Eastern Panhandle, you are seeing a shift,” says Senate Majority Leader John Unger of Berkeley County, who chaired the Senate’s redistricting effort. Kessler agrees. “It’s just natural, due to more representation going to more populated areas.”

Whether their rise to leadership is transitory or a sign of things to come, northern leaders in both houses say they strive for broad representation. “We were very conscious to make sure in the Senate that our leadership team was diversified geographically,” says Unger. Committees are chaired by senators from both panhandles, northern and central parts of the state, and all the way down into the southernmost counties. Miley’s new team is similarly spread out. He’s going into his first session with an awareness of the state as a whole. “Leaders need to resist the temptation to bring a vast majority of resources back to their areas solely because of their position as opposed to need,” he says, addressing Lusk’s concern head-on. “It’s critically important to make sure you spend a lot of time with the delegates and senators from other parts of the state and visit those places to try and have an appreciation of their needs.”

The northern leaders say their priorities are not regional, but statewide. “We’re formulating an agenda that benefits southern West Virginia and the entire state,” Miley says. He’s interested in holding schools and school systems accountable, not only for high graduation rates, but for preparation that propels students into productive and satisfying adult lives. “That’s how you start changing the mindset, changing the culture about education.” He wants to see access to true high-speed Internet statewide to take advantage of all opportunities in education and business. Then, he says, “We have to find out what we can do to maintain the economic viability of our coal industry—and make sure we maintain the economic viability going forward of the gas industry, and of timber.” And he’s formed a new standing committee that will hold panel discussions across the state to learn how the Legislature can promote small business, entrepreneurship, and economic development in all regions.

On the Senate side, Kessler knows economic devastation from his region’s experience with the steel industry’s decline and says the needs of the South won’t be overlooked. “Not as long as I’m in charge.” He speaks of the Select Committee on Children and Poverty created last year in the Senate, which is focusing on education. The Senate has also allocated additional funding to addiction treatment and recovery programs needed in the South and elsewhere.

And Kessler plans to add a new provision to his Future Fund legislation that would set aside a portion of natural gas severance taxes for economic development. “Right now it would give a portion back to the counties of origin. That’s nice for northern and North Central West Virginia, but I intend, in addition, that we give back for economic diversification to those areas that have historically been energy-producing counties. The southern areas that have given so much deserve a boost.” Although natural gas severance tax revenues amount so far to less than one-quarter of coal severance tax revenues, the proposed fund has been projected to accumulate $1 billion to $4 billion in 20 years.

 If Things Continue

“People in the North who haven’t enjoyed as much authority as they’d have liked might see an opportunity now,” Jackson says. “But I really think these people are bigger than that. I think everyone understands you have to address every area of the state.” Lusk hopes he’s right. “I don’t think the state would ever write off these counties as not viable,” he says. “Southern West Virginia is an asset to the state.”

Good things could come of a more inclusive, more diverse power mix—not so much a shift from south to north, but from the South northward, bringing all the state’s problem-solving smarts to bear. Arnold, for one, thinks more diversity in the power structure can only be a good thing. Chambers expresses a similar thought. “The southern counties are fairly homogeneous and tend not to be influenced very much by other parts of West Virginia or communities external to West Virginia,” he says. “There’s great value in the experience that other parts of the state have had by being in such close proximity to places that are different from West Virginia. If the political center of gravity moves north in the state, that may bring in new ideas—being constantly aware of where West Virginia falls short and other areas do better, and likewise, what attributes we have that make West Virginia special.”

In one encouraging example, the current Senate leadership is interested in a more flexible approach to legislation, Unger says—not telling counties exactly what they have to do, but establishing goals and standards and letting them choose their own paths to achieving them. “That opens up room for creativity and innovation, which means you can harvest ideas you might have never thought of on your own,” he says. “The best thing is to make sure every region’s voice is being heard in policy development. It’s been proven over and over again—it doesn’t diminish policy, but makes it richer and better.”

Written by Pam Kasey

Pam Kasey
Written by Pam Kasey
Pam Kasey has traveled, brewed, farmed, counseled, and renovated, but most loves to write. She has degrees in economics from the University of Chicago and in journalism from West Virginia University. She and her husband and their teenage son live in Morgantown with their cats, Perry and Kellin.