KanawhaCounty lost twice as many taxpayers and their
dependents in 1999 than in 1994. Why is the population loss accelerating,
where are people going and what can be done to turn it around?
Imagine all the people in Charleston packing their belongings and
leaving KanawhaCounty, never to return. How many schools
would have to close? How many services would be cut for the people left
KanawhaCounty has lost more than 53,000 people since
1960, according to U.S. Census figures. That's about the number of
Charleston residents today.
The county's bleeding of people slowed in the early 1990s, but the flow
has grown into a hemorrhage in the last five years, according to migration
data from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. The county lost twice
as many people in 1999 than in 1994, the data show.
If the people who left KanawhaCounty were replaced by an
equal number of people coming in, the trend would go unnoticed. Instead,
6,789 more people have fled the county than have moved here between
1994 and 1999, according to the IRS data.
That's the same as if every resident of Nitro loaded up their U-Hauls
and took off. It's as if every Charleston Alley Cat fan sitting in Watt
Powell Park and every West Virginia Symphony patron in Charleston's
Municipal Auditorium disappeared from the county forever.
A constant drain
For this story, the Sunday Gazette-Mail conducted a computer-assisted
analysis on IRS migration data for KanawhaCounty from 1994
until 1999, the most recent year available.
The IRS keeps tabs on more than just how much money the government is
owed. Taxpayers tell the IRS which county they live in when they
fill out their tax return. By comparing the taxpayer's county of
residence from year to year, the IRS can tell us how many taxpayers and
their dependents moved into a county and how many people left. The
data is not perfect, but it captures an estimated 80 percent of all
In 1994, 7,231 people left KanawhaCounty and 6,442
people moved in. The county lost 798 people. In 1999, 7,659 people
left and 5,996 moved in. That year, the county's population drain doubled
to 1,663 people (see accompanying chart).
The departing taxpayers took with them more than $158 million in
taxable income. KanawhaCounty loses their purchasing power,
Teachers, parents and students in KanawhaCounty schools
know firsthand the pain that this population decline can cause. The school
than 40,000 students attended KanawhaCounty schools in
1980, compared to only 28,000 today.
The school board has closed school after school, citing declining
enrollment. More than 200 KanawhaCounty school employees
are slated to lose their jobs this summer.
Everyone in KanawhaCounty, not just families with
children, suffers when the population drops, according to Charleston Mayor
Jay Goldman. When many people leave, the cost of sewers, water and other
"We either have to cut services or the people who remain have to pay
more," Goldman said.
Where are they going?
People have been leaving West Virginia in great numbers since the
1940s. Back then, the "Hillbilly Highway" ran north to factory towns such
as Columbus, Cleveland and Detroit.
Now, southern states like North Carolina, Florida, Virginia and
Tennessee are the most popular destination for people who leave
KanawhaCounty and never come back. Kanawha
County had a net loss of almost 4,000 taxpayers and their
dependents to southern states between 1993 and 1999. About 570 were lost
to the Midwest - states like Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois.
Many Kanawha taxpayers are making shorter moves to the suburban
and rural areas west of the county. More than 2,600 Kanawha
County taxpayers and their dependents moved to Putnam County
in the last six years. Jackson, Lincoln, Cabell and Roane gained a total
of more than 1,000 taxpayers.
KanawhaCounty is gaining taxpayers and dependents from
one area of the state: the southern coalfields. Boone, Logan, Fayette and
Raleigh counties all contributed almost 1,000 taxpayers to the
The median income of the people leaving the county is about $400
a year higher than the income of those coming into the county -
$19,590 for out-migrants compared to $19,174 for in-migrants.