Editorials, Opinion

Economic reality check

This past Wednesday, Gov. Jim Justice scoffed at a WalletHub ranking that put West Virginia’s economy last overall in the nation. Specifically, he called it “political garbage” from a “bunch of liberal fruitcakes.”

While Justice likes to brag about the state’s surpluses (which he never puts to good use), the situation on the ground doesn’t look so rosy.

WalletHub’s ranking for West Virginia in its three main categories were 49th in economic activity, 42nd for economic health and 51st (including the District of Columbia) for innovation potential. These three main categories were broken up into smaller metrics, with each smaller metric holding different weights. For example, for economic health, WalletHub looked at unemployment, which was most heavily weighted, but it also considered ratio of full-time to part-time jobs, median household income, and share of population in poverty. Innovation potential looked at share of jobs in high-tech industries and STEM fields and entrepreneurial activity.      

It’s common knowledge that West Virginia suffers from a brain drain — the best and brightest seek employment out of state because there are no opportunities for them here, unless they’re lucky enough to get on with one of the state’s sprawling hospital systems or universities. While WalletHub used some strange metrics (like immigrant educational attainment), West Virginia’s own data backs up WalletHub’s report.

According to the West Virginia Department of Economic Development website, retail, food and accommodation services (all types) create the largest employment sector in the state, employing 141,283 people.  Next is health care and social services combined, which includes every hospital and doctor’s office as well as daycares, nursing homes and community nonprofits, with 126,595 employees. Next is public administration (government jobs), with almost 56,000 people. Education —   K-12 schools and universities — is the fifth largest employment sector with just under 52,000 jobs.

And professional, scientific and technology services —   the types of white-collar jobs the WalletHub study was looking at — only employ a measly 31,829 people across a variety of occupations. Even manufacturing (34,723) outnumbers white-collar jobs. This is not an exhaustive list, but these are the largest sectors. (For the record, extraction industries employ fewer than 6,000 people, not counting the pipeline truckers.)

There are nearly 175,000 jobs dedicated to “unskilled,” low-wage labor vs. roughly 140,000 to white-collar positions (a number which likely includes low-wage positions like janitors employed at schools or hospitals). The median household income in West Virginia was $48,000 in 2020 (more than $16,000 below the national median), according to the Census Bureau, and the poverty rate was more than 15%. Plus, income varies widely between zip codes.

West Virginia has historically been ravaged by exploitative industries.  Our entire state’s economy is built on people putting in long hours of very physical labor for low pay. The state has hung on so tightly to this vision of a rugged work ethic — “getting your hands dirty” — that it hasn’t made room for the hundreds of bright professionals who wanted to call the Mountain State home.

So, no, Gov. Justice, the WalletHub ranking isn’t political garbage. Outside the walls of the Greebrier, it’s reality.