The wealthiest county in America is not in Silicon Valley, it’s not in New York, but rather it’s here—Loudoun County, Virginia. This DC suburb boasts the highest median household income in the US. What it lacks in billionaires it makes up for with a massive upper middle-class working six-figure desk jobs at government contractors—Northrop Grumman, Raytheon Technologies, Neustar, and more—leading to a landscape peppered with one, two, and three million dollar homes; Ferrari, McLaren, and Rolls Royce dealerships; resorts, horse farms, and polo fields.
But perhaps the most bizarre part of Loudon County is its western border. On one side is a place where the average household brings in $157,000 a year. On the other is a state where that same average is less than $51,000. In comparison to its Mid-Atlantic surroundings, West Virginia sticks out remarkably.
West Virginia’s Economic Struggles
Its GDP per capita is just $53,000—second-lowest in the country. Poverty is at 17.1%—fourth highest in the US, and far higher than the region around. Life expectancy is just 74.7—second lowest in the US, and roughly equivalent to that of the nation of Slovakia. But beyond the statistics, at its core, West Virginia is, and long has been, a region in decline.
The Decline of Population
Its population peaked the better part of a century ago, in 1950, and has been on a slow, steady slide down ever since. Nowadays it’s one of just three shrinking states and it’s by far on the fastest pace partially since year after year, unlike in every other American state, more people die than are born.
The Opioid Crisis and Mental Health
Self-reported mental health is at an all-time low—in one study, the thirteen American counties with the worst scores were all in West Virginia. Perhaps as both a cause and effect of that, drug use is absolutely rampant—across one six-year span, pharmaceutical companies sold the equivalent of 400 opioid pills for every person in West Virginia, and that was only the supposedly legal trade.
McDowell County – A Case Study in Poverty
The state, as a whole, is in a bleak situation, but even within that average, there are shades of bleakness. Essentially every issue reaches its most acute form here—McDowell county. This southernmost slice of the state regularly ranks as its poorest, and one of the absolute poorest in the nation—per capita income is just $14,000, which means the economic situation of its residents is roughly analogous to that of those of the nation of Panama.
The Role of Coal in West Virginia’s History
Before Welch, or McDowell county, or southern West Virginia was known for what it lacks, where it falls behind, or why it’s so different from the rest of the country, these rails made this region the middle of American might. Since before the Civil War, West Virginia’s wealth in coal was well understood—it was simply an issue of getting to the resource, then getting it out.
The Rise and Fall of the Coal Industry
From 1910 to 1950 McDowell’s population went from about 20,000, to nearly 100,000, while statewide coal production now definitively outpaced all other contenders, unearthing some 144 million tons of coal on the year, nearly 40 million more than the next highest producer, Pennsylvania. And leading the highest producing state was McDowell, now the nation’s highest producing county.
The Impact of Automation on Population Decline
As margins tightened every time the industry had to pivot, it became more and more critical to cut costs. For those who stayed employed, the operational and managerial roles were solid middle-class jobs, but jobs that were becoming rarer and rarer, and jobs that, as they dried up, simply weren’t being replaced within the borders of McDowell county, or, for that matter, anywhere within West Virginia.
Geography and Economic Challenges
The largest employment sector in rural America writ-large, based on the Census’ sectoral definitions, is the combination of Educational Services, Health Care, and Social Assistance. This includes teachers, nurses, caregivers, and other people-servicing jobs that exist essentially everywhere. The second largest rural economic sector is manufacturing—representing 12% of jobs outside of urban areas.
The Challenge of Manufacturing and Agriculture
This sector, at least on average, is a key source of higher-pay, middle-class jobs in rural America. West Virginia, meanwhile, has to deal more with the lower-income sectors. Of course, another major rural economic sector is agriculture, and agriculture has long been a key part of West Virginia’s economy, but the landscape that’s been there for millennia is presenting new challenges for this sector.
Tourism Potential and Its Limitations
But there are cities in the broader region around—in fact, there are some of the wealthiest cities in the world. Therefore, the very factor that is holding the state’s manufacturing and agriculture industries back can be a key asset for another sector: tourism.
In democratic political systems, the perpetual lack of solutions in places like West Virginia has, and will continue to be a political barrier to the further decarbonization of the grid. Economic transition is therefore not just a matter of what’s right or what’s fair, but a practical necessity for achieving the most ambitious climate goals.
The impetus of the decline in Appalachian coal production is quite complex, but perhaps the largest factor is that the industry itself changed its operations in a way that made production out west, in places like Wyoming, far more cost competitive than in West Virginia.
In conclusion, West Virginia’s economic challenges are deeply rooted in its history and geographical limitations. The decline of the coal industry, combined with issues related to geography, has left the state in a state of economic struggle. While there are attempts to diversify the economy and attract new industries, the road to recovery is a complex one. This unique situation serves as a warning and a case study for regions facing similar challenges.