West Virginia is the future of red states

The abandoned, crumbling Coalwood High School in West Virginia

Coalwood High School, WV – Kelly Michals, CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed

What happens when white nationalists and anti-immigrant bigots get what they want? They’re finding out right now. There’s an article in the Wall Street Journal whose title sums it up: “Desperate for Workers but Dead Set Against Migrant Labor: The West Virginia Dilemma“.

West Virginia is suffering a slow-rolling demographic crisis. People are having smaller families, and because its economy never transitioned away from the dying coal industry, young people are moving away to find jobs. The result is an aging and shrinking population, and businesses desperate for workers and unable to find them:

There are so many elderly people and so few workers to take care of them that some old folks have died before getting off the wait list for home visits by health aides.

…Later that evening, at the Pendleton County High School boys’ basketball game, the gray-haired spectators outnumbered the students. Declining enrollment has meant that for the school to field teams, many athletic students need to play football, basketball and baseball, said Athletic Director Jackee Propst.

West Virginia’s population is among the oldest of any state. As a consequence, its labor-force participation rate is the second-lowest in the country, behind only Mississippi. It actually has fewer residents today than in 1940, the only state to have that grim distinction.

And the problem feeds on itself. The more people who move away, the fewer ties there are for the ones left behind, making them more likely to leave in turn. It’s a downward spiral that’s hard to stop:

The number of locations where business is conducted in West Virginia declined 9.3% between 2011 and 2021, according to the Census Bureau, the biggest drop in the U.S.

“We suffer from this vicious cycle,” said John Deskins, director of West Virginia University’s bureau of business and economic research. “The people who move away tend to be younger, more educated, more prepared for the workforce. And it makes the remainers older.”

The solution is obvious. West Virginia needs an infusion of fresh blood. It needs new people to move in, to buy property, to settle down, to start businesses and fill jobs, to build lives and have families.

To be clear, the problem isn’t that there are too few people in the world. Global population is still predicted to peak around ten billion by the end of the century. That’s enough human beings to accomplish anything we might reasonably imagine. The problem is there’s a mismatch between where people live and where labor is needed.

In other words, we need immigration.

That’s where the story takes a darkly ironic turn. Because while West Virginia desperately needs immigrants, its blood-red Republican government is doing everything it can to keep them out:

Since last year, Republican Gov. Jim Justice has signed legislation banning “sanctuary cities” in West Virginia and deployed that state’s own National Guard troops to the Mexican border in Texas. State lawmakers have introduced bills that would: require businesses to conduct additional screening for unauthorized workers; punish companies for transporting migrants who are deportable under U.S. law; create a program to enable state authorities to remove even some immigrants with legal status to work; and appropriate money for Texas to install more razor wire along the Rio Grande.

By all reason, West Virginia should be trying to rebrand itself as an attractive destination to move to. It should be touting its cheap land, abundant natural beauty (I want to see the New River Gorge in my life), low cost of living, and culture of hospitality. It should be throwing the gates wide open.

Instead, its state government is signaling by every means available that newcomers aren’t wanted. One Republican state representative (one of the very few foreign-born ones, no less!) has even proposed a bill to kick out refugees who’ve been legally granted asylum by the federal government:

This year, he co-sponsored a bill that would apply to a category of immigrants called “inspected unauthorized aliens”—those who haven’t entered the U.S. through an official port of entry but whom the federal government has allowed to stay and work while their legal status is in limbo.

If the bill becomes law, it would establish a program to transport them out of West Virginia.

The absurdity is beyond measure. The elderly are dying for lack of care, businesses are going bust because they can’t hire anyone, and at the same time, the state literally wants to expel people who are willing and able to work!

This is the paradigm example of how conservative ideology makes true believers’ lives worse. Republicans have ginned up a panic over immigration, trying to make it into an issue to attack Democrats with. Their tabloids and pundits scream about terrorists and gangs and faceless hordes flooding over the border. Their presidential candidates and governors traffic in white supremacist rhetoric about “shithole countries” and border walls topped with razor wire.

But their bigotry blows back onto them. Inevitably, conservatives don’t stop at using xenophobia as fodder for their attack ads. They internalize it and come to believe it themselves. And real crises, like the one West Virginia is now suffering, are the consequence.

Immigrants aren’t a problem, but a massive opportunity! West Virginia isn’t the only place that needs a shot in the arm. The fact that so many people still dream of coming to America is an asset most countries only wish they had. Barring the doors against them is like turning down a lottery jackpot. Immigrants are the solution to many woes, if only there weren’t so many bigoted Americans dead-set on keeping them out.

Unfortunately, West Virginians show no sign of reversing course. They’re clinging to their suspicion and hostility. And they’re going to get what they want: businesses shutting down for lack of workers; abandoned elderly people dying alone; vacant, rotting houses; once-prosperous communities becoming ghost towns; bridges and roads crumbling, communities reverting to wilderness, the light and life of civilization vanishing like a retreating tide.

To be clear, not all the people of West Virginia are ignorant hicks who deserve what they get. There are good people there, just as there are in every state. They don’t deserve to suffer the folly of their neighbors. My long-time, now sadly departed, correspondent and co-author Jim Haught was from West Virginia, and he was as staunch an atheist and a progressive as you might hope to meet.

However, it’s fair to say West Virginia is one of the reddest states in the country. In the 2016 election, it was the most Trump-loving of all the states, giving him 68% of its vote; and in 2020, an astonishing 69%. They adore his white supremacist rhetoric and anti-immigrant scaremongering. And they’re reaping the consequences. In a very real sense, the crisis consuming them is the one they voted for.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … and culture of hospitality.

    Uh, wot? I’ve traveled most of the contiguous US, and never saw any state so xenophobic regarding other states as West Virginia. Even the cops were nicer than most of the locals. The one person I know who tried to build a career there moved away after a few years, frozen out by the good-old-boy mafia.

    It’s a long-standing tradition, too: people whose great-grandparents moved there routinely make jokes about how maybe, maybe, with some luck, their own great-grandchildren might somehow win the status of “real” West Virginians if they live long enough.

    • says

      I probably didn’t phrase that well. I meant that the state *should* be trying to foster a culture of hospitality among current inhabitants, as a way of appealing to newcomers. As you (and the WSJ article) note, the reality on the ground is very much the opposite.

  2. Lakitha Tolbert says

    Once again, we have a situation where people are Dying of Whiteness. From the micro to the macro. Now we’ve got a whole state dying from it.

    Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan Metzl

  3. Katydid says

    The bitter irony is that a lot of Italian and Eastern European immigrants moved to West Virginia to work in the mines from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. But would immigrants feel comfortable there even if they were allowed? During the pandemic, a lot of towns in the midwest offered free homes to young people who would move there…but most of them left because they were outcast and ostracized by the locals.

    A few years back, I went to a conference hosted at a private college in a town about 20 minutes’ drive from Wheeling (the nearest big town). A group of us planned to go to Wheeling for dinner one night (the town we were in only had fast food). We asked the staff for restaurant recommendations and one of the women working at the conference mentioned that it’s rare for the people who lived in that town to ever go there because it was “too worldly”, “too big-city” (I just checked and the population is only 25,000) and “too far” for them to travel. That was heartbreaking.

    As part of the conference, we also spent a day at the resort called Oglebay (about 45 minutes away from the conference). The whole area was oh, so beautiful but oh, so impoverished–both financially and in spirit.

  4. Paul S says

    There’s this part of me, let’s just call it my “respectability politics” monster, that winces a bit when the term “white supremacist” is used when the subject isn’t people in hoods or black uniforms. But with all the open xenophobia and demonization on display, it’s harder and harder to refute that.

    Just more noise in my head to quiet down.

  5. Andrew T. says

    I’m from West Virginia. Born there, raised there.

    In my younger years, I was keenly aware of the state’s demographic and economic problems, and keenly wished that I could *be* part of the solution to those problems. I tried to stick around. But I couldn’t go on living in a place where for personal safety, I *had* to be closeted about my queerness, *had* to be closeted about my godlessness, *had* to lay low about my advocacy of open borders, lest I trigger the tempers of a very angry, very armed right-wing xenophobic majority. WV hospitality is real, but it can disappear pretty quickly if you look, behave, or think differently from the “norm.”

    And: I spent the 1990s and early 2000s hearing classmates and passerby spout off about how “immigrants” were “stealing” jobs; how “immigrants” were the progenitor of everything wrong in WV; how “immigrants” should be deported from the country. Never mind that all of these people were descended from immigrants themselves. Never mind that most of them lived in bubbles and had never come face to face with any of the people they were vilifying. “Immigrants” were their favoured bogeyman; a comforting scapegoat that satisfied their bigoted urges and freed them from having to acknowledge the uncomfortable factors (i.e., coal dependence, anti-intellectualism, racism…) actually sinking the state.

  6. raven says

    That reminds me of the rural farming town and area one of my parents grew up in, in the upper midwest.

    Since 1970, the town has lost nearly 50% of its population, which is still going down.

    This means houses are cheap and you can buy an older home for maybe $20,000.
    Even at that price, many of those houses never sell.
    The city has a program where they get the abandoned houses for back taxes and then tear them down. This is to keep the town from looking like a combination of slum and ghost town.
    You see whole blocks with maybe 3 houses on them any more.
    If you want to buy a few lots to build a new house, the city will sell them to you for a nominal sum.

    A lot of businesses in the town have closed down as well, the bars, restaurants, bakery, retail stores, farm equipment stores. The original owners die and no one wants to buy them or run them any more.

    I used to have a lot of relatives in the area.
    The younger people all got out as soon as they could and never looked back or even went back. None of them live there any more.

    I don’t know first hand what sort of attitudes they have towards immigrants. Just knowing the state and region, it is probably very typically Red State anti-immigrant bias.
    The remaining population is…98% white and the average age is 64.

  7. Anthony Kehoe says

    This is the same in post-Brexit Britain. UK xenophobes voted to kick all the foreigners out of the country, and now the healthcare industry is so starved of workers the waiting lists are insane.

  8. GMBigKev says

    I live in Northern Virginia and I absolutely would adore moving to West Virginia – it’s beautiful. It’s so cheap compared to NoVA. It’s the exact kind of terrain I want to retire to. But the people are just… awful. Their politics suck. It’s so backwards. If West Virginia wants people to move there, they’re going to have to change or die, and it’s clear they’re picking the second option.

  9. Katydid says

    @raven, was this one of the towns where they were literally giving houses away for young people to move into?

    When I saw the story on the news, I told my husband we should move there. We’re not the just-past-college-age demographic, but we’re settled into our careers and have money to spend in town. Then I kept following the story, and realized how inhospitable those places are to outsiders in general–I’m second generation, but I’m Scandinavian-American, so red-staters don’t discriminate against me on the basis of color.

    What is it about red-staters that they fight so hard against their own interests?

    A few years back, a famous British chef went to West Virginia with the goals of getting the schools to make better cafeteria food and people to learn to make better food choices and they did nothing but fight with him even though their kids are obese and the adults are dying in their 40s of preventable health conditions. As I recall, the foods they were fighting against were meals like roasted chicken with vegetables–certainly things their ancestors would have eaten, and easy enough for children to cook (the chef turned an empty storefront into a cooking school for kids).

  10. raven says

    @raven, was this one of the towns where they were literally giving houses away for young people to move into?

    It is close to that.
    They have been trying for decades to keep the town from disappearing and they advertise for people to move there on their city website.
    It’s connected to the outside world by a fiber optic cable.

    The town has always been clannish.
    They all originally came from the same place in Northern Europe and until recently, they all spoke the same dialect.

    I checked out the town website last night to see how the old place was doing. I spent time there long ago when my relatives were still alive and still lived there.

    The town is losing population but they have managed to reinvent themselves. The local doctor’s office is now a large (for that area) regional hospital. The school has been rebuilt and K-12 has a whole 150 students total.
    The average age is high at 64 because they have a large assisted living/nursing home facility that draws from a wide area.

    What they’ve been doing is cannibalizing the surrounded area. The next cities are 20 miles and 30 miles away. They are doing even worse.
    One nearby incorporated town now has a population of…0.

    This is typical of the midwest.
    It even has a name, i.e. rural flight.
    Even if the Red midwest states aren’t losing population, what is happening is that the big cities like Sioux Falls and Omaha are growing while the small rural towns decline.

  11. Katydid says

    Speaking of big cities and also West Virginia, @GMBigKev, my office once had a college co-op student from Morgantown, WVA. It’s a huge college town and it sounded livable, if that’s your thing. @Raven; a town with a population of 0…that’s depressing.

    @Anthony Kehoe; wasn’t some of the vote for Brexit by people who were so self-righteously “Going to SEND A MESSAGE” and stupidly voted against their own and their country’s interests?

    • Anthony Kehoe says

      Yep. But then again, the British electorate has always been racist. There was a solid working-class district called Smethwick in the Midlands but the Tory candidate won in the 1964 election by running on the slogan “If you want a n*gger for a neighbour, vote Labour”. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was behind in the polls but she then jumped ahead by making a speech in which she said that Britain was being “swamped by immigrants”. Brexit is well summed up by Billy Bragg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07X_yk1v8S4&ab_channel=BillyBraggVEVO

  12. andrewt says

    There was actually a brief window from the late 1960s to early 1980s when West Virginia arguably seemed to be turning a corner…supporting its colleges and universities, opening new state parks, funding new infrastructure, passing somewhat progressive legislation, attracting residents from other states and abroad. My family moved to the state during this time, so did several of their friends, and they weren’t alone: WV actually increased in population in the 1980 Census.

    Then, just as quickly as the second wind came, it left. The policies of the 1970s were a good start, but they didn’t go far enough to overcome the state’s self-destructive reliance on coal…or counteract the strains of racism, anti-intellectualism, and Christian fanaticism simmering under the surface, especially in rural areas and small towns. I’d say the one-two-three punch of the early 1980s recession, Reagan, and hate radio launched the state into a vicious cycle. And so many West Virginians retreated to their cliquey ways, embracing the far right (quietly in the 1990s, blatantly by the 2010s) and driving everyone trying to incite constructive change out on a rail.

    I wish I knew what the solution was. It’s easy to say “be the change you seek”…but I couldn’t go on living in a place where for personal safety, I *had* to be closeted about my queerness, *had* to be closeted about my godlessness, *had* to lay low about my advocacy of open borders, lest I trigger the tempers of a very angry, very armed right-wing xenophobic majority. 🙁

  13. lpetrich says

    These people may say that they want legal immigration, but that doesn’t seem to be a very high priority for them.

    Do they want only people who are exactly like themselves?

    If so, then there won’t be many to choose from.

    • Anthony Kehoe says

      Yes, that’s exactly what they want. In the UK, post-Brexit, many voices are calling for immigration to be restricted to Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders (Americans are excluded because they don’t recognise the crown as their head of state). Somehow, I don’t think they mean Qubecois or Maoris, somehow…

  14. says

    Were it not for all the collateral damage, I would be perfectly happy to just let GQP-dominated jurisdictions suffer the consequences of their self-damaging actions and policies. Sadly, those consequences do not discriminate, and will damage non-GQP residents of those jurisdictions just as easily as they do GQP residents.

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