The Politics of Brain Drain and Population Loss

The U.S. Government has undertaken the Census every ten year since 1790. The information that is gathered through the Census gives us the best estimate of the profile of our country for each decade. Census data is inevitably used for numerous studies and scholarly journal articles, it’s used by businesses, federal and local governments, and so on. One of the most important uses of the Census, I would argue, is in the determination of representation in the federal government. Many people do not know that as populations in states change, the number of congressional districts and representatives from each state are reflected in those changes. For West Virginia, the consequences of the ebb and flow of the state’s population that will be unearthed in the 2020 census will be impactful, to say the least.

While the majority of states in the country have increased in population over the last two years, seven states–including West Virginia–have seen sustained decline. In 2014 and 2015, West Virginia saw the loss of 27,000 residents throughout each of those years. Those numbers are up from 2013’s loss of 17,000 residents. On top of this, population outlooks are not optimistic that West Virginia will be gaining in population anytime soon.

The dynamics of state populations, their push and pull factors, the internal and external influences that move people and keep people in any one place, are complex and involved in attempting to explain them. For the sake of brevity there are two aspects of West Virginia’s population crisis that are worth looking into: the causes and the results.

The Causes

Travis is a senior at Martinsburg High School in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Martinsburg–for all of its struggles with unemployment, drugs, and racial strife–is the largest city in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, one of the state’s few remaining economic drivers. Martinsburg High, or MHS, ranks in the 55th percentile for english proficiency, 18th percentile for mathematics proficiency, and 11th percentile for college readiness, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Travis is by no means blessed to go to MHS, or to live in Martinsburg. However, thanks to a multimillion dollar line item in the West Virginia state budget, Travis–and all of his peers who successfully graduate high school and are accepted to college–will, in theory, go to a West Virginia public college. What is known as the “Promise Scholarship” provides a large tuition stipend to any West Virginia state school for West Virginia residents with the intention of keeping students in the state, educating them in the state, and getting them to stay and work in the state.

To some degree, the Promise Scholarship has worked in keeping two-thirds of West Virginia residents who graduated from a public school working in the state. However, this still amounts to 30 percent of educated West Virginians leaving the state. Additionally, only ten percent of out-of-state residents who went to school in West Virginia stayed in the state post-graduation. And, is if to add salt to the wound, recipients of the Promise Scholarship are less likely to stay in state post-graduation than West Virginia residents who do not receive the scholarship but still graduated college.

On top of this, the Promise Scholarship–originally designed to serve every West Virginian–is too expensive, too popular, and too limited because of budgetary restrictions. In 2016, the scholarship received 11,809 applicants, but the state was only able to pay for 33 percent of those who applied. The budget crisis–a can that has been kicked down the road for several consecutive legislatures–has recently brought increased calls for the elimination of the scholarship that costs the taxpayers millions with marginal return on investment.


Photo: MRM.Org

Now, what does this all mean?

West Virginia is one of the rare examples within the United States of “brain drain“. We typically hear that phrase in regards to countries in Southeast Asia, Central America, and Africa where students who can afford to come to countries like the United States for their education leave home and–more often than not–never look back. The results are educated populations who abandon their countries in favor of education and economic opportunities, leaving behind those that are not as wealthy, not as educated, and not as likely to better the country as a whole. In this sense, West Virginia is one of those places.

In droves, the educated of West Virginia are going elsewhere. The best students West Virginia has to offer are taking their free education and running for the hills (or in this case, away from them). And who could blame them? Where West Virginia has an economy is in low-skilled, low-income labor–manufacturing jobs, food production jobs, mining jobs–and where West Virginia does not have an economy is where the business climate is so unfriendly that any opportunity is overburdened with local and state taxes and regulations. The educated have learned enough to realize there is nothing in West Virginia for them. So they leave.

Of course, in addition to the massive brain drain that is taking place, is the previously discussed War on Coal. The coal industry has had the floor taken out from underneath of them. Those that have not had the opportunities to allow them to attend college, who work in low-skilled, low-income industries, who once had a job in a mine but has since been subject to firing after firing because federal regulations are closing mine after mine, these are the individuals who suffer the most. Those that can afford it, will leave the state, taking with them every bit of the upper-level of the working class. Those than cannot afford to leave, are stuck in West Virginia. Stuck in chronic joblessness. Stuck in entire cities without economies. Stuck in West Virginia.

The Results

Now we get back to population and the Census. West Virginia is losing nearly 30,000 people a year at the current rate. After the Census is taken and the exact amount of loss is clear, congressional redistricting is inevitable.

As it stands, West Virginia’s Congressional Delegation consists of five members including senior Sen. Joe Manchin (D), junior Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R), Rep. David McKinley (R-01), Rep. Alex Mooney (R-02), and Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-03). With the approaching midterm election, there is speculation that Jenkins–a southern West Virginian and former Democrat who turned Republican and has since become the poster boy for revitalizing the state’s desecrated southern counties–will make a run for right-leaning Democrat Joe Manchin’s senate seat. Whoever is the replacement in Jenkins’ seat in the House will have a short stay before redistricting hits and all hell breaks lose.


Rep. Evan Jenkins addressing the House Republicans

Photo: Washington Examiner

Once the redistricting takes place, the loss in population is likely to eliminate a congressional district leaving the state with just two members in the House of Representatives. In this event, all current sitting members lose their incumbency and are forced to run for a seat in one of the two new districts. This means, for instance, that redistricting divides the state between the northern half and the southern half. The two incumbents in the northern half of the state–more likely than not, two Republicans–are then forced to run against each other and any other challengers for the nomination of their party.

What will inevitably transpire is a significant amount of infighting on the part of Republicans:

  • Jenkins moving to the senate will engender a GOP-versus-GOP fight for his House seat, that will get further shaken-up after the redistricting
  • Jenkins himself is likely to have to fight for the senate nomination against a formidable opponent, Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who has now won two statewide campaigns and is heavily favored in his adopted home of the heavily-Republican Eastern Panhandle
  • Unless one of the incumbent GOP representatives bows out post-redistricting, there will be a battle for the Republican nomination of the newly reformed house district that will likely encompass the majority of counties in both WV-01 and WV-02, currently held by Rep. McKinley and Rep. Mooney.

Not all of these predictions may come to be. However, with increasingly more people leaving West Virginia–especially those that are educated and able to relocate–comes more political instability. And with political instability and infighting, unfortunately, comes a greater likelihood of increased political inaction.

One thought on “The Politics of Brain Drain and Population Loss

  1. samalleman1 says:

    I found this post to be fascinating! It’s really intriguing to put West Virginia’s population problems in terms of education and economic policy. The changing economy definitely presents problems for states that rely so heavily on what we are slowly beginning to consider ’20th century’ industries. Despite eliminating federal regulations, most of which are targeted at preventing climate change, I’d be interested to hear your perspective on how this issue might be solved.


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