Posted: May 2, 2013 at 3:48 pm

By Stephanie Aikin, Omar Ghabra and Kelsea Lynch

When Liyang Yu graduated from high school in a small town rooted in Southern West Virginia’s coalfields, he only knew one thing about where he was going to college: it wouldn’t be in West Virginia. Yu, a first generation American of Chinese descent, ultimately attended Northwestern University, an elite private university near Chicago, more than 600 miles away from his hometown.

“I knew I wanted to get out of the area, and when I got the opportunity to go to Northwestern, I was elated,” Yu said. “There aren’t a fraction of the opportunities available to me in West Virginia, either educationally or socially.”

Yu’s experience is not out of the ordinary for young people in West Virginia. While the median age nationwide is 37, the median age here is 41, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many youth are fleeing the Mountain State because of the stagnant economy and a perception that West Virginia is an undesirable place to live.  This perception was strengthened by a recent survey, which found West Virginia the “most miserable” state in the country, with its two largest cities, Charleston and Huntington, dubbed the “most miserable” cities in the nation based on their low ranking for overall health and well-being. The rankings are based on a Gallup Well-Being Index, which assigned each state and city in the country a score based on physical health, emotional health, self-described happiness, access to basic necessities, and work environment.

Bluefield was once a thriving coal city. It is now virtually a ghost town, as this photo of abandoned buildings in downtown Bluefield shows.

Bluefield was once a thriving coal city. It is now virtually a ghost town of abandoned buildings.

Christopher Plein, associate dean of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences at West Virginia University and co-author of the book West Virginia Government and Politics, pointed to the state’s high poverty rate as the primary factor underlying West Virginia’s low well-being score.

“There’s a correlation between poverty and a lot of the challenges individuals in this state are facing,” Plein says.

The fact that the state is predominantly rural is another reason its score was so low on the recent Gallup survey. A lack of health care services, recreational facilities and other activities in rural areas make the state less enticing to younger people.

“Living in a rural state means that often it’s difficult to access services,” Plein says.  “This might mean there’s a shortage of mental health facilities, which exacerbates the problem.”

Experts say West Virginia’s problems were centuries in the making. Lucinda Potter, a professor of political science at West Virginia University, suggests the state’s lagging economy are connected to the state’s troubled political history.

Starting with the drawing of the state’s border as it was seceding from Virginia (unlike many other states, the borders did not include a major commercial area), the writing of its constitution, and the domination of the coal industry in the 20th century, the state has suffered the consequences of a government that has lacked  the capacity to resolve its problems. West Virginia’s constitution was written during a time when a strong, anti-centralization sentiment predominated. According to Plein, this continues to hamstring the ability of local government in the state to respond to the needs of its people.

” If you were to put West Virginia on a continuum of local governments, we would be on the side of the weakest local governments. That is a product of the political culture,” Plein says.

The coal industry’s prominence in the state has also had a lasting impact.  Experts say its control over the state’s political system and its ability to provide relatively high-paying jobs to uneducated workers contributed to many of the problems outlined in the well-being index. Even though coal is now in decline, the persistent notion that you can get a decent-paying job without much education keeps many West Virginians in a vicious cycle of inadequate education and poverty.

“West Virginia’s history is in large part a history of coal,” Plein says.

The state’s economy, however, is now shifting away from coal toward a more diversified economy, with service-oriented cities like Morgantown and Martinsburg growing. “The center of power in our state is shifting from the southern part of the state to the north and the eastern panhandle,” Plein says.

A sign in Mongah, West Virginia describes the worst mining disaster in American history.

A sign in Mongah, West Virginia describes the worst mining disaster in American history.

Four years after leaving the Mountain State, Yu has graduated with a degree in economics from Northwestern. He has no intention of returning to West Virginia.

“It’s a very conservative, ethnically homogenous, and stubbornly uneducated place,” he says.  “It was honestly an easy decision for me.”