Governor Justice is right to be bullish on West Virginia’s economy. It is growing and creating jobs. That’s reflected in the latest numbers showing state government collected $119 million more in tax revenue than projected for the first three months of the fiscal year.
It is also true that unemployment is low, just 5.3 percent in August. However, that rate belies a deeper problem with our employment picture—the abysmal labor force participation rate.
The just-released data from WVU’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research shows that “only 53 percent of West Virginia’s adult population is either working or looking for work.” That’s the lowest in the country.
Dr. John Deskins, Bureau director, attributes the chronically bad workforce participation rate to what economists call “poor human capital outcomes.” In layman’s terms, that means too many working age adults in the state do not have the education, training, good health or motivation to look for, and then maintain a job.
The state’s drug epidemic is one of the reasons. The recent MetroNews Dominion Post West Virginia Poll found that half of the state’s residents say they have a friend or family member who has been addicted to prescription pain pills.
Deskins says the dearth of trained, healthy workers is a significant drag on the state’s economy. “West Virginia will never be able to achieve a level of economic prosperity that is on par with the nation with a labor force participation rate that is a full 10 percentage points below the national average.”
The state is making progress in improved training through community and technical colleges. They can pivot more easily than four-year institutions to give workers—especially non-traditional students—the skills required.
The drug issue is far more complicated. The initial flood of opioids fueled a generation of addicts. Regulators, doctors and pharmacies have tightened up dramatically on the legal distribution of opioids, but the illicit drug market is difficult to contain and the road to recovery for addicts is long and uncertain.
West Virginia also has the highest rate of adult obesity in the nation at 38 percent, up from 24 percent in 2000 and 14 percent in 1990. Obesity is a big contributor to health problems such as diabetes and hypertension—West Virginia currently ranks 1st in the nation in those categories.
West Virginians always pride themselves on their work ethic, but that ethic is not consistent throughout the workforce for the reasons I have just explained. Existing West Virginia businesses that want to expand and companies looking to relocate here already know of our challenges. We need to face up to them as well.
The real tragedy here is that all those West Virginians who are not working and not looking for a job represent a massive amount of unfulfilled potential and missed opportunity.