The U.S. Census Bureau has highlighted an old problem in a new way in a report identifying what it calls “persistent poverty.”
According to the methodology of “Persistent Poverty in Counties and Census Tracts,” an area is identified as being in persistent poverty if it saw a poverty rate of 20% or more across four different data points.
Those points are the 1990 Census, the 2000 Census, the American Community Survey five-year estimate for 2005-2009 and the ACS five-year estimate for 2015-2019.
The report tracked poverty data for both counties and census tracts — statistical subdivisions within counties.
The report identified 341 counties in the United States in persistent poverty, including 11 in West Virginia: Barbour, Braxton, Clay, Fayette, Lincoln, Logan, McDowell, Mingo, Monongalia, Summers and Webster.
The populations of those counties is around 294,800, meaning 16.7% of the state’s overall population lives in counties with persistent poverty.
For census tracts, 93 of West Virginia’s 484 tracts saw persistent poverty. The populations of those tracts is about 255,000, about 14.4% of the state’s total population.
In 2019, there were an estimated 310,000 West Virginians living below the poverty level, representing 17.6% of the state’s population, according to Census Bureau data.
The Vicious Cycle
The majority of West Virginia’s persistent poverty in both counties and tracts is concentrated in the southern region of the state.
The current state of the region’s economy is attributable to a prior lack of economic diversity and a downturn in the coal industry, according to Dr. John Deskins.
“The real key issue here is that we have this vicious cycle in place in these counties,” said Deskins, who serves as director of the Bureau of Business & Economic Research at West Virginia University’s John Chambers College of Business and Economics.
“Historically they were far too reliant on one industry — coal. There was a lack of industrial diversification. That industry suffers tremendous job losses ... there’s not other industries that are growing to pick up those lost jobs or those displaced workers.”
That caused workers to have to move elsewhere in order to find jobs, Deskins said.
“The data show that people who are moving away tend to be younger, healthier, more educated and more prepared for the workforce,” he said.
This leaves the remaining population smaller; older, on average; and generally less well prepared to enter the workforce, according to Deskins.
Drug use in the area has likely also played a role, Deskins said, with all of these factors culminating in a “downward spiral” in which lack of opportunity begets a lack of development, which in turn limits opportunity.
“It’s persistent poverty because the bad economic development events compound,” he said.
The Monongalia Anomaly
While Deskins was surprised to see Monongalia County on the list of counties in persistent poverty, he noted that it is possible for the majority of an area to see great prosperity but still see an elevated poverty rate.
“The poverty rate just captures what percentage of the people are in poverty,” he said. “So you could have a county where 20% of the people are in poverty — which would be a high poverty rate — but that doesn’t speak to the state of the other 80%. So it could very well be the case that you just have a county where income is very unequally distributed.”
However, in Monongalia County specifically, Deskins suspects it may be an anomaly due to the county’s large student population.
“I’m almost certain that is going to be an anomaly because the students are counted as living in Mon County even though they’re not really from Mon County,” he said. “So you might have a 20-year-old student who’s working 10 hours a week in a low-income job, and that person’s income may actually qualify them as being in poverty, even though they’re not really in poverty because they’re students getting support from their parents, they’re taking on student loans.”
How About a Nice Game of Chess?
In spite of the fact that areas of persistent poverty have been identified, there is no simple solution for those regions in terms of spurring new development, according to Deskins.
“Some people think of economic development as though new businesses are chess pieces and some economic development leader can just kind of place those around the county, or around the chessboard, at will,” Deskins said. “But that’s not how it works. The businesses locate where they’re going to locate, and economic development leaders can just help them out.”
It is more economically advantageous for a business to locate in an area where there are already other businesses and that are already prosperous, Deskins said.
“For example in Mon County, the western part of Mon County is pretty rural and pretty remote. And if, for example, if you located a restaurant out there, it’s not going to be to your advantage because it takes a long time to drive out there. It’s not going to be wise from a business location perspective.
“We can’t just magically plop a business down in the one part of the county that’s just not doing well.”
The solution? According to Deskins, it’s continuing to develop the areas that are doing well, with the goal of that prosperity providing a benefit to the surrounding areas.
“What we have to do is continue to build strength and momentum where we can, and we just hope that over time the area gets bigger and that those positive things just broaden out geographically,” Deskins said.
He pointed to Monongalia and Preston counties as a good example of how this can look in practice.
“Mon County is the growing county, the stronger county. Preston County, right next door, is much more rural,” Deskins said. “(There’s) not nearly as much business development happening in Preston County.
“But those good Mon County jobs that are growing in number still affect the Preston County people because you have tremendous, tremendous levels of commuting from Preston County into Mon County for work every day.
“That’s just one example of how even though the jobs aren’t necessarily distributed evenly across the two counties, the jobs in Mon County still benefit a lot of Preston County residents.”