Population Decline Continues in Southwest Virginia in 2012
by Lewis Loflin
The US Census Bureau now estimates from April 1, 2010 through July 1, 2011 almost 2000 residents have fled the region in the last 15 months. This has left the 11 counties and three cities in a state of confusion and denial.
Wise County seems to have had an increase, but county officials claim that's due to a growth in prison population. We also have to be careful of college students going and coming in the region. Other distortions are coming from the 2000 or so workers building a power plant in Russell County.
Washington County, VA is reported to have lost 49 people and Bristol lost 85. This to me is too much within a margin of error, but is ominous for Washington that has seen population growth over the last decade due to move-in retirees along with a persistent and growing poverty rate for long-term residents. The high poverty rates and lack of jobs will continue to force our young people to flee the area.
Another looming problem is the impact of the federal "war on coal" under President Obama will hurt coal counties such as Wise, Dickenson, Buchanan, etc. There have been recently hundreds of layoffs in Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia. Abundant and low-cost natural gas and costly EPA regulations is driving the substitution of gas over coal in power plants.
Buchanan County continues to be an economic basket case even with government subsidized pharmacy and law schools, a $300 million Wal-Mart project, and pork-barrel road projects. They've lost at least 15 percent of their population in the last decade even with all the government spending. County officials brushed-off the latest bad news and are falling back on their claims of an improving market for their coal. Yea, right.
The continuing lack of real jobs and out-migration continues to plague the whole region. Lee County is a prime example. Quoting the Bristol Herald Courier July 9, 2012:
Lee County Administrator Dane Poe said that, historically, people have left the region in search of jobs. And though there have been times when some returned during a coal boom to work in the mines, mechanization has meant fewer jobs are needed to produce the same tonnage of coal.
Lee County also was a big population loser in the estimates. It lost an estimated 441 people, or 1.7 percent of the population, mostly through out-migration. "Part of it's a perception issue," Poe said. "Some of it I think is a perception that the quality of life isn't so good in this area."
Perception??? Talk about state of denial! I drove through your Duffield Industrial Park, it's full of vacant buildings! I went to the new county computer center in Blackwater where they spent almost $1 million to place a dozen computer workstations stations in a cow pasture. How many jobs did that create Mr. Poe? Tell us about that empty call center building in Duffield and the other new empty one you just built! What have these people been smoking?
This out-migration has continued to drain the region of its best and brightest leaving us with a huge drug-addicted and uneducated labor force, assuming they're not on disability. It's not just lack of jobs, it's the poor quality and low pay of what we do have. Why keep building more redundant infrastructure just to spend government grants while refusing to deal with our labor force problems?
As pointed out coal and I'll add manufacturing will continue to automate and require fewer, but better educated workers, something we just don't have and can't retain under the present political system. I wrote a letter to the editor to the Herald Courier listed below. I hope somebody will listen. I've warned of exactly what has happened for over a decade and wish they would prove me wrong.
Re: Population decline July 9, as an adjunct instructor in technology I'm adding my voice for consideration. The region suffers a number of political/social problems retarding job creation and real private sector growth.
Far too many are collecting checks, can't pass a drug test or background check, and choose to stay unskilled. There's a number of mostly free or low cost education opportunities at our community colleges and other organizations including help in getting a GED.
That education must start with basic skills in reading, writing, mathematics, and science. Over half the students entering local community colleges have to take remedial math and English classes, even out of high school.
I've dealt with many students short-changed under this worthless "no child left behind". I've seen most excel and learn under a more focused system where classes compliment each other, instead of simply filling a requirement.
We must improve vocational education by requiring "book work". The New York Times (April 3) notes, "The factory jobs we really want will be fewer and will require more education. But they will pay more."
Stop using vocational schools as a dumping ground. These students can and often do excel if given a proper education. Stop looking down on those with less than a 4-year degree. Besides being trapped in massive debt, many of those advanced degrees have become worthless in the real world.
The only way to stop our chronic population decline is to address the appalling labor and wage scale problems by creating a better labor force. The almost half-billion in government pork spent in Grundy on roads, schools, and Wall-Mart have utterly failed and the same nonsense will and has fail here.
Until we deal with our dysfunctional political system, low pay, and poor quality labor force, expect more decline.