Brad Lips | CEO, Atlas Network
This op-ed was originally published in the Orange County Register.
Nearly six decades ago, The Mamas & The Papas released their hit single “California Dreamin’” and idealized the Sunshine State for the masses. In the decades since, the Golden State remained a romanticized sliver of America where millions flocked for a better life.
In 2023, the California dream is on life support. Since April 2020, the state’s population has dropped by more than 500,000 people—second only to New York. And the exodus continues today, with once-glamorous cities like San Francisco losing their luster. The population drop is driven in large part by the expansion of state government, with seemingly endless taxes and regulations making California’s business environment one of the least favorable in the country. COVID-era mandates and restrictions didn’t help. In fact, nearly two-thirds of businesses have left the Golden State for greener pastures in recent decades, relocating to lower-cost states like Arizona and Nevada.
History isn’t static. Places that were once doing well can decline, while past stragglers can find new momentum and rise. West Virginia is a case in point for the latter.
America’s Mountain State was once the subject of ridicule. Much ink was spilled on West Virginia’s woes, with the mainstream media alternating between “distressed,” “struggling,” and other unsavory adjectives. John Denver’s description of the state as “almost heaven” seemed like a parody, given its hillbilly reputation.
How the tides have turned. Fast forward to 2023, and more people are moving to West Virginia than moving out. Not only is West Virginia one of America’s most affordable states, but it is also now one of the most attractive, even beating out competitors like Florida and Texas in the latest “Opportunity” ranking from U.S. News & World Report.
Why the turnaround? It is impossible to overlook the impact of public policy. In recent years, West Virginia’s reform-minded legislators—supported by the Cardinal Institute and other think tanks—have worked diligently to make West Virginia a freer, more prosperous place.
In 2021, West Virginia passed the most expansive and inclusive school choice program in the country, strengthening its education system by prioritizing educational opportunity. The state’s “Hope Scholarship” now provides parents with Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) that they can use to pay for a wide range of options for their children. The ESA amounts to over $4,000 a year that parents can spend on private school tuition, special needs therapy, transportation, and other expenses. In the process, students are guaranteed more educational options than ever before, setting themselves up for success in their future careers.
By 2027, the Hope Scholarship will be available to all West Virginia students, even families that homeschool. The writing is on the wall: States like West Virginia are letting Americans know that if they are unhappy with the schooling options where they live now, there is now a place where families are empowered and free to choose an education system that meets their needs and expectations.
Even more recently, West Virginia scored a historic win on tax reform, with Governor Jim Justice signing into law the largest tax cut in state history. West Virginians have earned more than $750 million in tax relief, including a reduction in the personal income tax rate. Also included in the new law are a full rebate of West Virginia’s car tax and a 50 percent rebate of the small business property tax, in addition to tax credits for veterans in the state. With a lesser tax burden on being employed and investing in the state, West Virginia has naturally become a more promising place to live and work.
Garrett Ballengee, founding executive director of the Cardinal Institute, claims a “West Virginia Miracle” can be realized thanks to the willingness of state policymakers to change course. As Ballengee recently told me, “Most West Virginians have a good idea of what hasn’t worked, and so it has been critical to present a fresh set of policies, ideas, and ultimately, solutions to West Virginia’s decades-long malaise.”
Public opinion also reflects West Virginia’s newfound educational and economic promise. The excitement is palpable in the state. Even Governor Justice’s sky-high approval rating—one of the highest in the nation—speaks to the West Virginia turnaround.
California, on the other hand, continues to roll out red tape that strangles the middle class. At the same time, Governor Newsom’s approval rating has inevitably suffered from the growing skepticism among his state’s residents, with 70 percent of Californians opposing a potential Newsom presidential run in 2024.
What was once unimaginable—West Virginia competing with the likes of California—is now very much a reality. Public policy matters. By enacting education choice, updating the tax code, and promoting freedom, West Virginia policymakers are taking steps to help people today and decades down the line—unlike their competitors.
Leaning into America’s foundational principles, West Virginians, both new and old, are finding prosperity in Appalachia. Millions of other Americans—many of them in California—can only dream of finding it for themselves.