Danielle Stewart for Mayor of Beckley
What is the Problem with Beckley
Beckley has a lot of problems. Substance abuse, crime, low wages, low employment participation, quality of employment, trash, abandoned properties, substandard housing, homelessness, and the list goes on and on. While these are each individually a problem, I feel they are really symptoms of the bigger issue we have in Beckley and that by addressing the bigger problem we will in time eliminate the symptoms.
I have told people for years that our biggest problem in Beckley is our population loss. Most people laugh and point to one of the symptoms as our biggest issue but there is a reason to my thoughts, and I hope to help you understand them.
In 1980, the population of Beckley was 20,492. The estimated population in 2018 was 16,183. That is a loss of 4,309 people over 38 years which equals a loss of about 113 people per year. That doesn’t sound like much until you look at it in the bigger picture. According to the census bureau the average family size in Beckley is 2.2 people per house. At an occupancy rate of 2.2 people per house and a population loss of 4,309 people, that means that over 38 years we now have 1,958 empty houses in Beckley. That is almost 2000 house not paying utilities. That is over 4000 people not paying taxes or shopping at businesses in the community. That is 4000 people not paying to improve almost 2000 house. And although we have 4000 less people and 2000 empty houses, we still must pay to maintain the same roads, sewer, water, and other infrastructure in the city. This has huge impacts.
Here is an example to demonstrate the effect of population loss on the community. I used round numbers and estimates to make the math easier to understand. The actual numbers are much worse. Things like inflation, changes in minimum wage laws, utility rate increases, and the rate of growth of salaries are just some of the factors that impact the real numbers.
In 1980 we had 10,000 occupied houses paying $5,000 per year in utilities and taxes. This brought in $50 million to pay for infrastructure. At the same time, we had $50 million in expenses to pay for our infrastructure, so we can maintain the balance in our community.
In 2018 we had 8,000 occupied houses paying $5,000 per year in utilities and taxes. This brought in $40 million to pay for infrastructure. At the same time, we still had $50 million in expenses to pay for our existing infrastructure – a gap of $10 million per year. Because we have this gap, our city and utilities either have to raise their taxes and rates to make up the loss (costing us all more money) or defer maintenance as long as possible. This is what is happening now with our roads in Beckley. We are supposed to repave roads every 12 years, but we currently can only afford to repave roads every 25 years. Apply this same affect with our water, sewer, electrical, gas, and telecommunications systems and you have the resulting issues with infrastructure in Beckley.
The same thing can be found in our economy. Again, I use round numbers and estimates to make the math easier to understand. I specifically used $41,000 in retail expenditures as that is the official number from the census bureau in 2012.
In 1980, 20,000 people spent on average $41,000 per year at stores in Beckley accounting for $820 million in retail sales. In 2018, 16,000 people spent on average $41,000 per year at stores in Beckley accounting for $656 million in retail sales. This is a loss of $164 million dollars per year in our economy. A loss of $164 million in our economy equals a loss of around 4,100 jobs. A loss of 4,100 jobs explains all the empty businesses in Beckley.
Let’s look further at impacts of population loss on business. Let’s say we have Industry A in 1980. Industry A needs 100 employees. Only 1 out of every 200 people have the skills needed by Industry A. With a population of 20,000 Beckley has 100 qualified people to work in Industry A so Industry A locates in Beckley.
Now move to 2018. Industry A can still employ 100 people and only 1 out of every 200 people have the required skills. With a population of 16,000, Beckley only has 80 qualified people to work in Industry A so Industry A will not locate in Beckley.
Let’s take that further. A small Business in Industry B needs 1000 customers to financially sustain an individual business. With a population of 20,000 in 1980, Beckley can support 20 small businesses in Industry B. With a population of 16,000 in 2018, Beckley can only support 16 small business in Industry B.
And taking it even further. Retail Store or Restaurant C will only locate in a community with 20,000 potential customers. In 1980, Retail Store or Restaurant C locates a business in Beckley. In 2018, Retail Store or Restaurant C does not locate a business in Beckley because we cannot support their business model.
These numbers are not real, but these are just some of the exact calculations’ businesses use to determine where they will locate. The numbers change but the process does not. When people ask why a Google or Amazon won’t locate in Beckley, this is why. When people ask why a small business closed, this is the reason why. When people ask why we don’t have a Red Lobster or Target, this is the reason why.
We will not be able to address our issues without increasing our population. This is not new. We have watched in real time as McDowell County lost 70,000 people. In 1989 Mount View High School in Welch was a triple A school. Now it is a single A school. You only have to compare class sizes at Woodrow over the last 30 years to see it happening here.
So to this point I have demonstrated how serious of a problem our population loss is but I have not connected it to other issues and that is because a lot of those issues (the ones I called symptoms earlier) are due to a lack of opportunity and hope brought on because of the impacts of our population loss.
We all know there are lots of job openings for minimum wage, part-time, no benefit jobs in Beckley but what kind of quality of life is that. One night you close the store at midnight and then have to open it at 6:00 a.m. the next day. You work 6 hours on Sunday, off on Monday, 4 hours each on Tuesday and Wednesday, off on Thursday, and 5 hours each on Friday and Saturday. And the next week the schedule is completely different. How do you go to school with a schedule like that? How do you take care of your family with a schedule like that? You make minimum wage $8.75 an hour and if you are super fortunate and work 40 hours a week, your bring home pay is $300 after taxes. Because this person is working, all social safety net benefits are reduced.
On May 1, 2019 the Beckley Police Department arrested a woman for prostitution. She was charging $40 per “trick” and let’s say each “trick” takes an hour. If she performed 8 “tricks” a week (8 hours of total work) she makes $320 a week or $20 more than a minimum wage individual working 40 hours in a week does. And on top of that, because she isn’t working a legitimate job she is eligible for full SNAP benefits, Medicaid, and other economic support. This person can have a better quality of life than the individual working their butt off at a minimum wage job.
We can apply the same principal to thieves and drug dealers – people are going to do what they can to make the most money and have a better quality of life. Do we have a problem with crime, or do we have an economic problem?
Staying with our hard-working person making minimum wage. She gets sick and can’t work a week and now she is behind on bills. Because she is behind on bills, she can’t make her car payment and it gets repossessed. Without a car, she cannot get to work or get a new job. Without a job, she can’t pay her rent and gets evicted. And now we have another homeless person on the street or worse a person turning to crime to support themselves. This is not a make-believe story. It has happened to people I know, and it is happening in our city every single week. This is not a problem with people who don’t want to work, it is a problem with our economy and our support systems.
And the thing that connects this all is that people have lost hope in our city. When the poorest of us lose hope, we all lose. If people can leave, they leave. If people can’t leave, they do what they must do to survive. People turn to drugs to ease their suffering.
People without hope don’t care about their housing and trash or abandon it. People without hope don’t care about their neighborhood and throw trash everywhere. People without hope don’t care about other people and only use people to help themselves. And so the death spire continues.
There are no easy answers here. There is no magic bullet or water park that will fix these problems. This is a complex, multi-faceted problem across time, generations, and socio-economic status that will take the entire community working together to improve.
This problem takes a leader who understands the complexity of the situation. This problem takes a leader that cares about all the people of Beckley. This problem takes a leader with fresh views and ideas to lead our community back to prosperity.
I AM THAT LEADER!