Blog Posts > State of Working West Virginia 2021: Labor, Race, and Solidarity
August 26, 2021

State of Working West Virginia 2021: Labor, Race, and Solidarity

This report was co-authored by Sean O’Leary, senior policy analyst, and Myya Helm, summer research associate.

Read the full report here.

Introduction

As West Virginia recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and recession, its path forward remains unclear. For many years, West Virginia has lagged behind the nation in many positive economic indicators, with low earnings and high rates of poverty and unemployment. This was true before the pandemic hit. In 2019, West Virginia had the nation’s sixth-highest poverty rate and the seventh-highest child poverty rate. The state’s median household income of $48,850 was the second-lowest among the 50 states, and $16,862 below the national average.

Prior to the pandemic, the national economy had enjoyed steady growth over the past decade, but West Virginia was increasingly left behind. Total nonfarm employment nationwide grew by 14.9 percent from 2009 to 2019, but by only 0.9 percent in West Virginia, the slowest rate in the country. And while the state lagged behind the nation for
most of the decade, things were slowing down even further before the pandemic, with West Virginia being one of only two states to lose jobs in 2019.

West Virginia’s unemployment rate in 2019 was fifth-highest in the nation at 4.9 percent, 1.2 percentage points higher than the national average, while the state’s prime-age labor force participation rate was third-lowest in the nation at 78.2 percent, 4.3 percentage points lower than the national average. Those West Virginians who were working found themselves laboring for some of the lowest wages in the country. West Virginia’s median hourly wage of $17.39 was fourth-lowest in the country in 2019, $2.18 below the national average.

While ranking at the bottom of these economic statistics is a familiar place for West Virginia, it is important to remember that this has not been the state’s whole story. In fact, just a few decades ago, within the lifetime of many West Virginians, the state performed much better on a host of economic indicators and found itself much more aligned with the nation. The critical difference was that, back then, we grew stronger because we grew together.

This report, the 14th edition of the State of Working West Virginia, examines the economic transition that took place in recent decades as inequality grew, wage growth stagnated, and job quality declined. But beyond the data, this report will take an in-depth look at the labor history of West Virginia — exploring both how strong unions played a key role when we grew together, and how their decline played a key role when we started to grow apart.

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