One of the mistakes often made when discussing West Virginia’s economy is looking at the conditions in a monolithic way—the state is doing better, doing worse or staying about the same. This over simplification is often rooted in the monthly release of state tax revenue figures.
If tax collections are running at or above estimates, we surmise that the state is doing better. If those collections are below estimates, then we conclude that the state’s economy is underperforming.
However, this macro picture is not a fair representation because economies of various regions of the state perform quite differently. Dr. John Deskins, director of the WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research, broke down the state’s economic pros and cons region by region in a presentation to the legislature last week.
Here are some of his findings:
–The state has added 8,700 jobs since 2017, all but 300 of them in just eight counties—Jefferson, Berkeley, Monongalia, Marshall, Harrison, Doddridge, Ritchie and Jackson Counties. Coal/natural gas and pipeline construction accounted for more than 7,000 of those added jobs.
–The southern coalfields are struggling mightily. The Bureau’s study finds that in Wayne, Lincoln, Boone, Mingo, Logan and McDowell Counties, real wages have dropped 30 percent and employment is down 22 percent since 2013.
–The Metro Valley (Kanawha, Putnam, Cabell) is holding its own. Since 2013, real wages are up four percent, but employment is down two percent.
–North Central West Virginia (Monongalia, Marion, Harrison, Taylor, Preston) is a growth area, driven primarily by Monongalia County. Wages have risen 18 percent in the last five years while employment is up six percent.
–The Eastern Panhandle (Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan) is booming. Wages have risen 15 percent since 2013, while employment is up nine percent. The growth there is different from other parts of the state because the eastern panhandle has no coal or gas production.
–Deskins defines Ohio, Marshall, Wetzel, Tyler, Doddridge and Richie Counties as the “Shale Boom Region.” Employment has held steady, but wages have risen 16 percent in the last five years.
Deskins concludes that West Virginia has “reasons to celebrate.” However, he adds, “Improvement is not happening everywhere… many challenges remain.”
Those challenges are all too familiar now—the opioid epidemic, stagnant population, lack of economic diversification, shortage of trained workers. However, just as with the economic plusses, those obstacles are more significant in some parts of the state than others.
Governor Jim Justice has been touting the monthly revenue figures as a sign that the state’s economy has turned around. However, as Deskins’ research shows, the degree to which the economy has improved depends on what region of the state you are talking about.