Our population problem

West Virginia took a few more lumps this week, this time on the subject of its youth.

A survey conducted by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation -- her son, Jim, founded UPS a century ago -- declared ours one of the worst states in America in which to be a child. Out of 50 states, West Virginia ranks 44th, lagging the rest of the nation when it comes to matters such as child and teen deaths, high school graduation rates and incidence of low birthweight babies.

This shouldn't come as some huge surprise. West Virginia is poorer than most U.S. states. Our collective standard of living is one of the lowest in the nation; such unflattering comparisons come with the territory.

To be sure, it doesn't have to be this way. West Virginia isn't destined to rank 44th or 48th or 50th every time some economist, researcher or business group sizes up the state of the union. States turn it around and move up the charts all the time. But they do so thanks to one, and only one, key ingredient.

People.

The states that consistently improve their lot do it with raw population growth.

Alas, to shake this bad rap, West Virginia needs to first attract more residents. The fact that we haven't -- the Mountain State's population has proven amazingly stagnant over the years -- deserves not just some, but all the blame for our current state of woe.

Consider that in 1930, West Virginia had 1.7 million residents. Today, we're home to 1.8 million.

Over the same period, Maryland grew from 1.6 million to 5.6 million. South Carolina from 1.7 million to 4.3 million, and Florida from 1.48 million to a whopping 18.8 million.

More recently and rapidly, states such as Arizona, Nevada and Idaho have transformed themselves into population magnets. Once viewed as desolate and devoid of opportunity, the trio are the three fastest-growing states in the U.S.

Arizona had 1.7 million residents in 1970, today it has 6.6 million. During the same span, Nevada's gone from a tiny 489,000 to 2.5 million; Idaho from 713,000 to 1.5 million.

West Virginia had 1.74 million residents in 1970. When it comes to the U.S. Census, we're America's Fred Flintstone.

The crux of all this is that a state not growing is dying. Getting real about what relegates West Virginia to the rear is a conversation that should start and end with our population problem. Nothing will ever really change until ours becomes, once again, a land of opportunity.

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