Democracy Dies in Darkness

Politics | Analysis

How the economy of West Virginia has changed over the past 25 years

By Philip Bump

March 3, 2017 at 3:07 PM

Trump at a rally in West Virginia during the presidential campaign. (Right Side Network)

To hear Donald Trump tell it, Americans hold one of three jobs: They work in manufacturing, they work as coal miners or they do something else. Trump discussed those three occupations to an about-equal extent on the campaign trail and has referred to them in nearly equal amounts since his presidential inauguration.

There's a lot of political potency to manufacturing and coal jobs, of course, particularly for Trump. Each is a classic, blue-collar occupation, which plays well to his base. Trump can also use those industries to hammer Democrats. The decline in manufacturing is blamed on NAFTA and former president Bill Clinton. The decline in coal? Environmental regulations and former president Barack Obama.

Manufacturing jobs have evaporated in large part due to automation; the decline in coal mining jobs predates Obama and has its own elaborate set of causes (including the exhaustion of easy-to-mine veins). Politics being politics, though, there's a resonance to "manufacturing" and "coal miner" that doesn't exist for "home health-care aide" or "hotel employee."

But there are far more Americans who hold those latter two jobs than the former — even in coal country.

There's no state that better exemplifies the occupational makeup that Trump focuses on than West Virginia. The state is the heart of coal country; visit, and you'll find entire stores selling tourists products made out of coal. But it also used to rely heavily on manufacturing. In 1990, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that more than 1-in-8 jobs in the state were in the manufacturing industry.

Well before Trump came on the scene, though, that picture of the West Virginia economy had changed.

The BLS breaks out employment into a cascade of different industries and categories. Government employment is broken down into federal, state and local buckets. Private-sector employment is goods-producing or service sector, with each broken into smaller parcels. Coal mining, for example, is a subset of mining (except oil and gas) which is a subset of mining which is a subset of natural resources and mining which is a subset of goods producing. Nationally, it's easy to track the size of all of these buckets, but in a small state like West Virginia, it's trickier.

Since 1990, this is the work that West Virginians have done. Blue sections are government jobs. Yellow, goods-producing. Green and red are service sector.

Over time, the number of people working has generally increased. Note that dark yellow section, though. That's manufacturing. It has grown much more narrow since 1990. It's harder to see, but that lighter yellow "mining and logging" section has also narrowed.

This view, though, doesn't give a great sense of how the economy has changed. Instead of a raw jobs count, let's consider each industry as a percentage of all employment in the state.

Here, the shift is obvious. The amount of blue (government) has stayed fairly steady. But the amount of the state economy that's yellow has been gobbled up by the green — and especially red — service-sector jobs.

Most of the industries in West Virginia have added employees since 1990. This makes sense, given that the population of the state rose from 1990 to 2015, although by a modest 50,000 people. There's broad variance across industries, though.

The biggest loss was in manufacturing, where the state lost 35,000 jobs. In mining, it shed about 13,000. But that was more than made up for by jobs in health care and social assistance. Those jobs increased by 60,000. Jobs in leisure and hospitality increased by 30,000. Those are giant shifts — and reflect similar shifts nationally.

As a percentage of employment by industry, the effects are more stark.

Manufacturing made up 13.1 percent of jobs in West Virginia in 1990. In December, it made up 6.1 percent. Mining and logging jobs fell from 5.4 percent of state employment to 2.7 percent. Health care and social assistance jumped from 10 percent in 1990 — less than manufacturing — to 16.1 percent at the end of last year. Leisure and hospitality moved from 7.6 to 10 percent of the jobs in the state.

The key thing to notice, particularly in that second big graph, is that this transition was fairly steady. Manufacturing jobs faded, and service-sector jobs increased. The transition was disruptive, and the quality of the jobs largely wasn't equivalent, which are both critical points — and critical to understanding the political change that's happened in the state. But what Trump has promised isn't simply to bring jobs back to West Virginia in its traditional sectors. He's promised to reverse the massive trends that drove those changes in West Virginia — and other states — for the past quarter-century.

It's hard to see how he'll be able to do that. Manufacturers aren't going to be willing to sacrifice the productivity gains that automation has brought, and easy-to-mine veins of coal aren't likely to suddenly appear, without blowing up mountains. The implication is that Trump should start spending more time talking about that third category of jobs that's so important in West Virginia and the United States: everything else.


Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Post based in New York.

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