09 May 2011


West Virginia is the only state to report a decrease in population. Dealths outpace births and the race is expected to continue. The once booming area used to house an abundance young couples and children, but with the decline of the steel mill the largest employer, these families are forced to relocate to survive.
The sense of community is dwindling if not gone in some areas. The aging population just does not have the energy, or in some cases, the ability to activily participate in community building activites. Gone are the days of festivals, fairs, and parades unless the younger generation steps up to the challenge.
Weirton, West Virgina is a perfect example of this story. 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.
The main reason Brooke County is so far off the national number - which is 171 births to 100 deaths - is that it has missed out on one of the dominant demographic trends to emerge from the recent census: the influx of young immigrants into communities across the United States. The median age for Hispanics, by far the largest immigrant group, is just 27, far lower than the median age for whites of 41.
Without immigrants or economic opportunities to keep its younger residents close to home, Brooke County and others like it are showing their age. At St. Paul Catholic Church in Weirton, the Rev. Larry Dorsch has buried 15 people this year and baptized one. The American Legion in Wellsburg has closed because of a lack of young supporters. Volunteer fire departments are so understaffed that people come from other towns to fight fires.
There are now 853 counties with similar population including parts of the Great Plains, the Midwest and New England. The problem is even more acute across the Atlantic. Countries in the European Union collectively will cross the threshold for having fewer births than deaths by 2015, and would experience population growth only through immigration.
West Virginia is the only state in the country with more deaths than births, but other states, like Maine, are not far behind. Estimates are that many white areas will tip into natural decrease in the next 10 to 15 years.
If Brooke County is a postcard from the future, it ended up there because it never adapted from its past. For decades, it was a steel manufacturing powerhouse, employing thousands of workers in mills along the Ohio River. Weirton Steel, a hulking plant that straddles Weirton’s main street was once the largest single private employer in the state. Now Wal-Mart holds that distinction, and Weirton Steel, now owned by Arcelor Mittal, a Luxembourg company run by an Indian billionaire, is a small fraction of its former size. Grass grows through cracks in the vast, empty parking lots.
Manufacturing jobs, long the lifeblood of the area, shrank by 38 percent statewide since 1990. Now health care is the state’s second-largest employer after government. The number of young people here sagged with the economy. The population under 35 is about half of what it was in 1980, while the number of residents 55 or older has jumped by 23 percent, according to 2010 census data released Thursday.
Now walkers and wheelchairs are more common than strollers. Sunday school classrooms at the United Methodist Church downtown are ghostly quiet, and Brooke High School has just half the number of students it did when it opened in 1969.
Fewer people means, inevitably, less of a sense of community. Father Dorsch spends his days looking for ways to revive it. In one town, he used public outrage about stray shopping carts to get people involved in improving their community. But Weirton has such bitterness over the mill that it has been hard to get its residents to trust anybody, and it seems stuck in place.
The demographics have created a death spiral, both literal and metaphorical. The lack of young people had reduced the tax base. With so few young people, volunteer fire departments are having trouble keeping staffing at safe levels. At the Bethany Fire Department, it is said that when the alarm goes off, the trucks leave with just two people on them when six are needed, so volunteers have to come from other towns to help.
But even one energetic young couple can do a lot to bring a town back to life, as the Sheperds have proved in Beech Bottom, the tiny town where they live. The town now has a new playground, thanks to the grant writing skills of Mr. Sheperd, who is from the county. They also have revived the town picnic, and have set up a Web site and a newsletter. They recently received a grant to start a recycling program.
With the population crisis, the communities will continue to struggle unless people, especially younger people, are willing to step up and take on the burden to turn things around. The Shepherds may have gotten the ball rolling but it will take more dedication from others to make it all work and progress. Areas like Brook County have a lot to learn to move themselves up from the trenches of a bad economy into a prosperous area that families will want to move back into.

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