As US economy improves, West Virginia remains economically distressed

WASHINGTON — More than a third of West Virginians live in economically distressed ZIP codes, according to an analysis from a bipartisan public policy organization.

In the Economic Innovation Group’s 2017 Distressed Communities Index report released Monday, more than 34 percent of West Virginians were noted as living in distressed ZIP codes, one of the highest percentages in the United States. Missississippi has a rate of 43 percent and Alabama was scored at 35.8 percent. Vermont has the lowest rate at 0.5 percent.

In addition, only 3.4 percent of West Virginians live in prosperous communities, one of the largest gaps between prosperous and distressed populations in the country.

The report mentioned one in six Americans as living in an economically distressed ZIP code, adding prosperous communities are spread out across multiple regions.

“A remarkably small proportion of places fuel national increases in jobs and businesses in today’s economy,” the report said. “High growth in these local economic powerhouses buoys national numbers while obscuring stagnant or declining economic activity in other parts of the country.”

Distressed communities are associated with multiple trends, including higher poverty rates, a higher percentage of adults without a high school diploma, a negative change of employment and lower median income rates. Economic Innovation Group used statistics to score ZIP codes, counties and congressional districts, with higher scores representing higher levels of economic distress.

Scores for West Virginia counties were high; McDowell County scored in the 100th percentile — the highest score possible — and much of the counties in southern West Virginia scored around or more than 90 points. Kanawha County was given a score of 58.6, and Putnam County was the best scoring county in West Virginia, receiving a score of 6.5.

In terms of congressional districts, West Virginia’s 3rd District was ranked as one of the worst in the United States with a score of 98.1 points, which is connected to a ranking of 431st out of 435 seats. The 1st Congressional District was ranked 379th with 86.9 points, and the 2nd Congressional District was placed 358th with 82.1 points.

Forty-three percent of West Virginia was described as “underwater” in terms of business and employment gains.

“Only two out of every five distressed zip codes saw any job growth over the five years of national recovery, and only about one in five saw the number of business establishments rise,” the report continued. “In other words, the national expansion in businesses bypassed the vast majority of distressed zip codes even as it lifted the vast majority of prosperous ones.”

Residents of distressed communities die around five years sooner than those in prosperous communities, and the average mortality rate is higher in distressed areas.

“People living in better off communities tend to exercise more and live healthier lifestyles. They are less likely to engage in high-risk activities such as smoking. They are more likely to be optimistic — and for good reason,” the report said. “They live longer, are less likely to die a preventable death, and suffer from fewer mental health and substance abuse disorders.”

Thirty-two percent of the population in distressed communities are recipients of public assistance, compared to 11 percent of those living prosperous regions. The average public medical assistance spending was $2,460 in distressed communities, compared to the national average of $1,752. In states that expanded Medicaid, such as West Virginia, that number increased to $3,260 per capita.

The report stated the national look at economic progress is disconnected to local trends, and these numbers often ignore the need to help local communities make economic progress.

“Hidden beneath the national numbers is a deeply fragmented landscape of economic well-being,” it said, “one in which far too many communities are being left behind.”

The national unemployment rate is 4.4 percent, compared to West Virginia’s 5 percent rate.

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