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Statistical Brief

Number 8

May 2002
West Virginia state seal

A Look at West Virginia's Population by Decade, 1950-2000
Brief No. 8

West Virginia's population in 1950 exceeded two million for the first and only time in the state's history. Fifty years later, in 2000, the population was slightly over 1.8 million. That's a loss of about 200,000 people from the Mountain State over five decades. Or is it?

Migration, both in and out of the state, plays a large role in population differences from year to year, or census to census, along with resident births and deaths. Let's look at some actual numbers from 1950 to 2000. According to the census, the state's actual population in 1950 was 2,005,053. Over the next 50 years, 1,553,966 babies were born to state residents while 953,674 West Virginians died. This would result in a "natural increase," i.e., an excess of births over deaths, in the population of 600,292.

So the question remains: Just how many people has West Virginia lost?

Assuming that nobody either moved into or away from West Virginia from 1950 until 2000, adding the natural increase to the 1950 population would result in a total of 2,605,345 people in 2000. That, however, hasn't happened. The Mountain State's 2000 census population was 1,808,344. That means 797,001 people have actually been lost to out-migration over the past five decades (2,005,053 + 600,292 - 1,808,344 = 797,001). In other words, West Virginia has lost an average of 15,940 residents per year, 1,328 citizens per month, 307 per week, and 44 per day. Imagine two people packing up and leaving the state almost every hour of every day, and that would best describe West Virginia's migration over the years.

Overall, 17 of the 55 counties in West Virginia have a larger population now than they had 50 years ago. However, only seven of these counties actually posted an increase from in-migration: Berkeley, Jefferson, Morgan, Hampshire, and Hardy counties in the Eastern Panhandle and Putnam and Jackson counties. Jackson, Jefferson, and Putnam counties have been the most consistent as far as growth resulting from migration is concerned, gaining in four of the five decades. On the other side of the ledger, five counties (McDowell, Logan, Kanawha, Ohio, and Hancock) experienced a loss due to out-migration in each of the past decades. (Tables 1-6 at the end of this brief detail county populations from 1950-2000.)

Let's look at how the state fared during each of these decades:

The Fifties (1950-1960) Over half of the Mountain State's overall loss from out-migration during the 50-year period occurred during this decade. Even though the absolute loss from 1950 to 1960 was just 144,632 (2,005,053 to 1,860,421), there were 463,936 births to residents compared with 171,308 deaths, a natural increase of 292,628 West Virginians. Using the above formula -- (1950 population) + (natural increase) - (1960 population) -- yields a net migration loss of 437,260. The only two counties that experienced a gain in population from in-migration were Jackson and Wood. The counties that suffered the most proportionately from out-migration were McDowell, Logan, Webster, Fayette, and Clay.

The Sixties (1960-1970) The population continued to drop during the sixties although not as drastically as during the fifties. From 1960-70, the population went from 1,860,421 to 1,744,237, a difference of 116,184. There were 336,171 births and 189,886 deaths, which yielded a natural increase of 146,285. Thus, West Virginia lost 262,469 people to out-migration. Putnam, Monongalia, Jefferson, and Jackson were the only counties to experience a net migration growth; the counties that suffered the greatest losses were (again) McDowell, Webster, Logan, Clay, and Mingo.

The Seventies (1970-1980) Finally . . . an increase in population. Not only did West Virginia experience an increase in population but also an upswing in net migration as well. The Mountain State's population rose by a total of 205,407, from 1,744,237 to 1,949,644. With the 290,799 births and 196,110 deaths (a natural increase of 94,989) contributing to the growth, West Virginia ended up with a net migration increase of 110,718 during this span. All but six counties (McDowell, Ohio, Kanawha, Hancock, Cabell, and Logan, in that order) gained population from in-migration during this time frame. The counties that experienced the highest growth by percentage were Jefferson, Putnam, Morgan, Berkeley, and Hampshire.

The Eighties (1980-1990) What looked like a prosperous trend during the seventies was reversed during this decade. West Virginia dropped from 1,949,644 to 1,793,477 residents, a difference of 156,167. There were 248,563 births and 194,018 deaths, a natural increase of 54,545. Overall, West Virginia lost 210,712 people to out-migration. Counter to the seventies, all but six counties lost people due to out-migration during this period. The counties that gained were Berkeley, Morgan, Jefferson, Hardy, Hampshire, and Putnam. McDowell County continued to have the greatest proportional loss, followed by Wyoming, Logan, Boone, and Fayette counties.

The Nineties (1990-2000) This was the "good news/bad news" decade. First, the good news . . .the population and net migration both increased. A total of 14,867 people were added to the population, which jumped from 1,793,477 to 1,808,344. Most of this gain, however, was attributable to a natural increase (214,497 births minus 202,352 deaths equals 12,145). The net migration was 2,722. Thirty-one counties increased in net migration; the top five by percentage were Morgan, Berkeley, Hampshire, Monroe, and Putnam. The five counties with the largest percentage decrease were McDowell, Mingo, Logan, Wyoming, and Wetzel.

And now for the bad news . . .

West Virginia's birth rate is shrinking rapidly. The state averaged over 46,000 births per year in the 1950s, compared with only 17,000 deaths. As time went by, resident deaths increased slightly. Births, on the other hand, have dropped substantially, from an annual average of almost 33,600 in the sixties, to 29,000 in the seventies, under 25,000 in the eighties, and just 21,400 in the nineties. West Virginia has, in fact, actually experienced more resident deaths than births every year since 1997, the first state to have a natural decrease.

So this brief answers our question: Just how many people has West Virginia lost? A future statistical brief will address the shift in age groups that has resulted in West Virginia having the oldest population in the nation. Much of the state's out-migration has been younger people who have been forced to move away to find work in other regions because of fewer economic opportunities in the Mountain State. They marry and raise their families elsewhere. Then, after they retire, many West Virginians come back home to enjoy life in the Mountain State. The "Graying of America" has already started in West Virginia.

Tables - Births, Deaths, Natural Increase or Decrease, and Net Migration
West Virginia Population by County

Clicking on the following links will bring up the table in a new window.

Table One 1950 - 1960

Table Two 1960 - 1970

Table Three 1970 - 1980

Table Four 1980 - 1990

Table Five 1990 - 2000

Table Six 1950 - 2000

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This page was last updated 05/20/02.