CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Recently I worked on a report on how working people are faring in West Virginia. The report, the fifth of its kind in so many years, is "The State of Working West Virginia" by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
The folks from the center did the grunt work of assembling and analyzing the data. I had the easy job of going over it and trying to identify a few key themes for an introductory summary. Some of the things that jumped out at me are described below.
But first, consider why it matters. It's not unusual in West Virginia to hear more or less strident warnings about the state's business climate, the status of which is said to range from healthy to "hellhole." Whatever the merit of such statements, I think it is very fitting to ask what the climate is for West Virginia's working people for a change.
Workers, after all, drive our economy as well as just about everything that moves in the state. They mine the coal, extract the gas, manufacture the goods, deliver the goods, provide the services and care for the people. Not only does their labor produce wealth, but their compensation, in the form of wages and benefits, provides most of the demand that moves the economy. By virtue of their labor and spending, they are arguably the real wealth and job creators.
And, unlike the gas, oil and coal that lie beneath our soil, they can and do move all by themselves, often heading for better opportunities elsewhere when these are not to be found in the Mountain State.
With that in mind, here are some key findings:
* We have a jobs deficit. During the worst period of the recession, which hit bottom in February 2010, West Virginia lost 21,300 jobs. Despite a long term, if unsteady, upward trend, as of this summer, there were 3,200 fewer jobs than before the crash. West Virginia would have had to create 27,000 jobs to maintain pre-recession job levels given population growth.
* Where the jobs are. More than half of all jobs in West Virginia are concentrated in three sectors: government; trade, transportation and utilities; and education and health services. The public sector was the largest employer, comprising over 20 percent of non-farm employment. Given recent calls for slashing the state budget, which are due in part to tax cuts that did not pay for themselves, this sector could face a decline in employment.
* How the jobs are. When viewed over several decades, job quality has declined. Less than half of West Virginia's workers are covered by employer-provided pensions and only slightly over half receive employer-provided health insurance. Meanwhile, inflation adjusted median wages declined between 2010 and 2011 and were over $1 an hour below the national average, even though low-wage West Virginia workers are better educated than in the past. Moreover, what wage growth occurred did so among higher paid workers, thus increasing inequality.