MORGANTOWN - West Virginia University researchers predict the state's population will decline by 1 percent, or nearly 20,000 residents, through the year 2030 as deaths continue to outpace births.
A report released Monday by WVU's Bureau of Business and Economic Research said the state will begin a sustained population decline around 2016.
A U.S. Census report released last week found that deaths outpaced births by 1,000 in West Virginia last year.
West Virginia has the country's second highest concentration of older residents. According to Census figures, 16 percent of West Virginia's population is 65 or older, compared with 17.3 percent in Florida.
The WVU report projected the share of the state's population over 65 will grow to about 23 percent by 2030.
Population movement in and out of the state is another big factor. While the WVU study said that's hard to predict, several factors could help bring in more residents, such as changes in the state's business and policy environment. For instance, a proposed ethane cracker plant in Wood County would bring thousands of jobs if it comes to fruition.
"A declining and aging population is one of our key long-run economic concerns in West Virginia," said Dr. John Deskins, the bureau's director and co-author of the study. "A smaller working-age population may mean that fewer businesses would consider locating in the state since a smaller potential workforce would be available."
The report predicted continued strong growth for Berkeley and Jefferson counties in the Eastern Panhandle and Monongalia County, home of WVU. It said each of those counties is expected to add more than 10,000 residents apiece through 2030, while 44 of the state's 55 counties would see population losses.
Last week's Census report showed 41 counties with population declines.
"Our report highlights some very serious challenges that the state faces," said WVU demographer Christiadi, who only goes by one name. "However, the overall outlook is really uncertain given the volatile and unpredictable nature of migration patterns. There is hope that the population loss may not be as bad as some fear."
The report noted that continued population losses could cost the state one of its three U.S. House seats in the 2020 reapportionment. West Virginia lost a U.S. House seat after the 1990 Census.