Buried at the very bottom of 851 pages of recently updated federal data is a startling statistic: Less than half of working-age West Virginians are, in fact, working.
In November 2014, the most recent month for which data is available, just 49.8 percent of West Virginians older than 16 had a job, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number is called the employment participation ratio and it represents the percentage of the total population that is working. It does not distinguish between people who simply choose not to work and people who do not have a job for good reasons — the elderly, students and the disabled. (The number does not count people who are in the military, jail or a nursing home.)
The plunge below 50 percent catches the eye, but it’s not a big change.
West Virginia has been last in the nation in employment participation every year since the BLS began collecting state-level data in 1976.
And we haven’t changed much recently. West Virginia’s employment participation ratio has fluctuated between 49.5 percent and 50.5 percent every month for the past five years. The state’s employment participation ratio bottomed out at 43.4 percent in March 1983 and peaked at 54.3 percent in December 2006.
John Deskins, an economist who runs the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University, focuses on a slightly different statistic, called the labor force participation rate. That number measures not just the percentage of the total population that has a job, but also those who are looking for a job but do not have one.
At 53.2 percent in November, West Virginia also is last in labor force participation, and it has been since data was first collected.
This number, in Deskins words, shows what percent of the population is “ready, willing and able to work.
“We want to make our state attractive to potential businesses; this is not helping matters,” Deskins said. “Business wants to have an easy time finding the workers that it needs. It’s a major hindrance.”
West Virginia’s aging population, poor health, drug abuse problems and a skills mismatch between what workers have and what employers want are among the reasons for the low workforce participation, Deskins said.
He pointed to health as likely the single biggest factor.
“If we lead the nation in terms of obesity, cancer, diabetes, it’s not surprising that that’s reflected in our labor force participation,” he said.
Sean O’Leary, a policy analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, agrees.
“A lot of the problems in our labor force are really problems with the health of our population,” he said.
O’Leary is working with Deskins on a study on labor force participation. He said that, if you look at specific demographics — healthy people, educated people and married people — within West Virginia, the numbers begin to look better.
For instance, West Virginians who have graduated from college and are in prime working age — 25 to 54 — have a labor force participation above the national average, O’Leary said.
“Our college-educated workers are doing well,” he said. “We just don’t have enough of them.”
Only 11 percent of West Virginians have a bachelor’s degree, the lowest rate in the country, according to Census data.
West Virginia also leads the country in people who wouldn’t be expected to work. More than 20 percent of West Virginians have a disability, according to Census data, the highest rate in the country. And more than 17 percent of West Virginians are older than 65, the third highest rate in the country.
“The bad news is, those factors aren’t things you can change overnight,” Deskins said.
Since the onset of the most recent recession, labor force participation rates for West Virginia and the nation as a whole have moved virtually in tandem. They are both about three points lower now than they were in 2007.
In July, the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers issued a report on the national decline. It attributed more than half of the fall in able and willing workers to the aging population, specifically the retirement of Baby Boomers.
It noted that the president’s annual economic report has linked aging workers and an impending fall in the labor participation rate every year since 2000.
“There is still a very large drop-off in participation when workers enter their early 60s,” the report states.