During my lifetime, I’ve seen West Virginia make all kinds of bizarre headlines. And for the most part, I can see how my home state has developed its reputation as a wild place that time forgot.
We’re renowned for being at the epicenter of our nation’s opioid crisis, so I understand why most everyone from other parts of the country thinks all Mountaineers are out here pushing oxy. There are also parts of the state, especially in the interior, with no cellphone reception. So it makes sense to me that a lot of people think we’re Luddites who would prefer to read by candlelight than flip on a light switch for some artificial sun. A lot of my fellow North Americans think we’re backward — and that never bothered me too much.
However, after West Virginia public school teachers had to spend more than a week on strike, it’s evident that my home state has an infection spreading throughout its people: We don’t feel valued.
I’m included in this bunch, as much as I wish I wasn’t. After attending college out of state (where I earned a scholarship for representing geographic and financial diversity — there were no other first-generation, West Virginia residents at my liberal arts school that year), I considered moving home to work. However, armed with my bachelor’s degree in modern languages and anthropology, I was met with bleak professional options. In 2017, WalletHub ranked West Virginia the worst state for job prospects. With my particular background, my options seemed to be limited to working in libraries or waitressing. My classmates who didn’t move out of state are mostly working as cashiers and servers, and there are a select few who work for the city or became bankers. Since the decline in manufacturing and coal mining employment opportunities, our industries have shifted to prioritize jobs that relate to health care and social work.
My years reading Margaret Mead’s ethnographies and learning Spanish and Italian did little to prepare me for either of those fields. And since I’d never done clinicals or spent time studying child development, I felt like a noncompetitive applicant for most jobs that required college degrees in Wheeling, my home town. I felt as if there was no place for my skills and passions, so I moved out of state.
I wasn’t the only one, according to population reports from recent years. West Virginia has a growing problem with out-migration, which means more people are leaving the state each year than are signing leases and buying houses. West Virginians tend to be on the older side, with more residents dying each year than are being born. In 2016, West Virginia had the greatest decline in population in the country, and these rates are expected to continue for years to come. The one thing that could change the Mountain State’s bleak future would be if more young people moved there, which we simply aren’t doing. Why? If my experience is symptomatic of the way things are going across West Virginia, it’s because our state doesn’t have industries that can support individuals with diverse professional interests and undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.
The average West Virginia teacher’s annual salary has been a point of contention since the strike began. Now, most people know West Virginia has one of the lowest mean salaries for teachers, with the average annual income for a high school teacher falling at $45,240. This figure ranks us the fifth lowest nationally, but it’s still better than what the average West Virginian makes. According to a 2016 report based on U.S. Census data, West Virginia bottomed out among the four poorest states in the country, with the average annual income falling at $43,385.
West Virginia does have a low cost of living, especially compared to states such as New York and California. However, I believe all these low numbers are indicative of the fact that West Virginians are not reinvesting in their state’s economy because, for people like me, they simply do not have a way to do so. And it’s not for a lack of wanting. I want to help West Virginia, but I don’t know how.
Right now, West Virginia is bleeding. The memory of the once-robust coal industry still has a stranglehold on many people here, even though production is greatly diminished and mining jobs have dropped by 40 percent in the past five years. Our state is in a critical condition, and if our dwindling population and homogeneous industrial economy does not improve and diversify, West Virginia will dissolve. Children went without school for more than a week, and an entire workforce was pushed to its breaking point. So many West Virginians are tired and frustrated, and the rest of the nation has taken notice.
We’re a resilient bunch, and we continue to hold our own in the face of adversity, but I’m not sure how long our state can continue in this manner. Our state is famous now for all kinds of strife. This discord is sometimes internal, like what we saw this month between educators across the state and local lawmakers, or it can be external, like the tension that perpetually exists between West Virginia and the rest of the nation about coal mining and whether it will return to the Mountain State.
Throughout my childhood, I saw revitalization efforts crop up around the state. Places such as Harpers Ferry and Point Pleasant have figured out how to capitalize on their unique histories, and my home town in the state’s Northern Panhandle has tried to bring outside businesses to the area. There’s much more work to be done, and we West Virginians must stand together if we hope to stay afloat.