By Matthew Young, RealWV
West Virginia has been playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette with its future. Year after year, the declining average in life expectancy, coupled with the ever-increasing rates of homicide, violent crime, and overdose deaths, has positioned the state to experience the slowest population growth in the nation over the next decade.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the life expectancy for residents of West Virginia is just 72.8 years, ranking the Mountain State 49th out of the 50 states. To put that into perspective, on the average, Mountaineers die nearly five years earlier than New Yorkers, and four years earlier than those living in Illinois. Furthermore, West Virginians typically die earlier in life than residents of every state with a significantly higher crime rate. As of this year, the average West Virginian is 42.4-years-old – nearly a full five years older than anywhere else in the United States – and getting older by the day.
Poverty, it would seem, is both the common denominator and the driving force behind these troubling statistics. Mississippi has the dubious distinction of being the poorest state in the nation, as well as having the shortest life expectancy for its residents. West Virginia’s similarly-poor life expectancy and 17.10% poverty rate places it 49th and 47th, respectively.
So, why is West Virginia so poor?
While at 3.3%, the unemployment rate has reportedly been incredibly low, so too is the average household income. Families in West Virginia average only $48,037 annually, once again placing the state 49th in the nation. It should come as no surprise to learn that Mississippi is ranked 50th. The Census Bureau reports that in 2022, the average annual household income in the United States was $70,784.
The world’s declining dependence on fossil fuels has had a severe impact on West Virginia’s economy. In 2021, 11,333 West Virginians worked in coal mines across the state – a significant decrease from the 57,597 mine-workers the state employed just 10 years earlier.
With nearly 150,000 employees, the state itself is the largest employer of its residents. However with more competitive salary-offerings available in both the private sector and in neighboring states, as well as the seemingly constant turmoil surrounding the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), thousands of state jobs remain unfilled. Currently, West Virginia is experiencing staffing-shortages in education, nursing, corrections, child protective services, and several other departments. With some 14,000 combined employees, West Virginia United and Charleston Area Medical Center (CAMC) health systems make up the state’s second largest employee-base.
History has proven that where there is poverty, there are often high percentages of crime and illegal drug use.
At 90.9 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents, West Virginia had the highest overdose-death rate in the United States in 2021. While the CDC has not yet released statistics for 2022, early projections indicate that the rate will show an increase once the final numbers become available. Although heart disease remains West Virginia’s leading cause of death, overdose deaths are inching ever closer to the top spot.
The state’s reported rate of 6.9 homicides and 17.3 incidents of gun violence per 100,000 residents means that Mountaineers are significantly more likely to be murdered with a firearm in West Virginia than in either New York or California. The national rate of gun violence is 14.7 incidents per 100,000 residents.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a “one size fits all” solution to West Virginia’s poor life expectancy, as residents of the state’s northern counties average longer life-spans than those residing in the southern counties. For example, at 77.65 years, Pendleton County residents live longer than in any other county in West Virginia. Conversely, at 67.04 years, McDowell County residents have West Virginia’s shortest life expectancy.
At 20.63 per 100,000 residents, suicides are also a major factor which negatively impacts West Virginia’s life expectancy. The national suicide rate in the United States is 14.09 per 100,000, placing West Virginia among the states with the highest possibility of death by suicide.
Adding to it’s incredibly short average life expectancy, at 25.65 incidents per 100,000 residents, McDowell County has the state’s highest suicide rate. McDowell is followed by Clay County at 21.34, and Mercer County at 20.97 incidents per 100,000. At 11.05, Monongalia County has the lowest suicide rate in West Virginia.
As of the 2020 census, West Virginia’s population is 1.783 million. Current estimates indicate that the state’s population will have risen to 1.833 million by the completion of the next census in 2030. However, worldpopulationreview.com reports that, as of 2022, West Virginia’s population has decreased by 0.58%, bringing the total number of residents to 1,764,786.