Monday, May 9, 2011

Population loss in Appalachia

This story, "With Death Outpacing Birth, County Slows to a Shuffle," appeared on the front page of the New York Times a few days ago, with a dateline Weirton, West Virginia, population 18,875. Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff's story, however, makes Weirton sound much smaller. The gist of the story is population loss:

With just 71 babies born on average for every 100 residents who die, Brooke County, in which Weirton is partly located, has the largest such gap in the nation among counties in metropolitan areas, save for a handful of places that are magnets for retirees. (Hancock County, which contains the other part of Weirton, is in similar demographic straits.)

Tavernise and Gebeloff's story explains that the national figure is 171 births to 100 deaths, and that Brooke and Hancock counties are headed in the other direction because a dominant demographic trend has passed them by: the influx of immigrants, who tend to be younger. The authors do not explain why immigrants have not come to Weirton, though they have settled in so many other American communities. They suggest, however, that the community is dying because of lack of jobs.

What really moved me about this story, though, were some descriptions of the community--referring to the collective as a living organism, as much as the individuals are. The local Catholic priest is quoted:
[Weirton]’s like a clinically depressed person, who curls up on the couch and withdraws ... It’s the hardest assignment I’ve ever had.
Tavernise and Gebeloff observe that Weirton's residents don't trust anybody after the local mill's closure, so that "it seems stuck in place." A map that accompanies the story shows that the vast majority of West Virginia counties are suffering net population loss, along with Appalachian parts of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina.

On a more positive note, the story closes with the tale of a couple in their 30s, the Sheperds, who live in nearby Beech Bottom, population 549. They have applied for and received grants to pay for a playground and a recycling center. “We need someone to help us keep the plates spinning,” Mr. Sheperd said. “There’s just not a lot of us here.”

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