PolitiFact West Virginia’s State of the State 2019

Jan 8, 2019

As Gov. Jim Justice prepares to deliver his State of the State address on Wednesday, PolitiFact West Virginia thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at the state of the state as seen through our recent fact-checks.

PolitiFact West Virginia was launched in August 2018 as a partnership between PolitiFact and the Media Innovation Center in West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media. Under the editorship of PolitiFact senior correspondent Louis Jacobson and Reed College teaching associate professor Bob Britten, roughly 20 students fact-checked and published more than four dozen claims about West Virginia during the fall 2018 semester. The project is continuing in the spring 2019 semester.

The following includes some of the fact-checks published in PolitiFact West Virginia over the previous six months, when Justice, a Republican, was serving as governor. They include claims about West Virginia’s recent economic growth, poverty rates, and measurements of health and education.

The good news

“In 2017, the number of new business registrations in West Virginia grew nearly 11 percent (8,318 new businesses registered for the year). This comes off the heels of a 12 percent increase in new business registrations during 2016.”

Claim by: West Virginia Republican Party

Mostly True

The data comes from the Business Statistics Database maintained by the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office, and the office confirmed to PolitiFact the accuracy of the numbers in the tweet.

Erin Timony, the office’s assistant communications director, said the numbers focus on limited liability companies and corporate business license registrations by county. Since other types of businesses are not included, the data does not encompass all new businesses in the state.

Another point to note: The tweet cites business registrations, but not business closings.

Data compiled by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 15 out of the last 17 quarters have seen more business deaths than births in West Virginia.

This doesn’t mean that the business registration data is wrong; rather, it just says that the tweet paints an incomplete picture.

“West Virginia added the highest percentage of new construction jobs in 2017 in the United States, at 14.4%. This amounted to 4,300 additional jobs! In fact, #WV was the only state with double-digit growth!”

Claim by: West Virginia Republican Party

True

The source is a report by the Associated General Contractors of America, a trade association in the construction industry. The comparison is drawn from data collected from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The five states with the biggest percentage increases during 2017 were West Virginia, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Idaho. So the party’s tweet was accurate.

Still, the current level of construction employment in West Virginia hasn’t returned to its nearly three-decade peak in the period before the onset of the Great Recession, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It’s worth noting that construction jobs, while important for people within the industry and within adjacent industries, only account for about 4.5 percent of non-agricultural employment in the state -- about 34,000 construction jobs in August 2018 out of 752,000 nonfarm jobs in all.

Still, as far as the tweet’s limited claim goes, it is accurate.

The bad news

“Adjusting for inflation, West Virginia’s median household income has not grown in a decade.”

Claim by: Democratic state Sen. Mike Romano

True

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that in 2007, the inflation-adjusted median household income in West Virginia was $49,885 — the culmination of a decade and a half of consistent gains above the rate of inflation.

But one decade later, the 2007 figure remains the state’s highest median income level since the statistic was first recorded in 1984. Over that decade, the median income fell by 9 percent when factoring in inflation.

The nation as a whole has seen some income stagnation since 1999, but nothing as severe as West Virginia experienced. Nationally, median incomes have risen every year since 2014 and hit an all-time high in 2017.

The poverty rate in West Virginia “was 19.1 percent, the fourth-highest in the country.”

Claim by: Democratic state Sen. Mike Romano

True

We turned to official U.S. Census Bureau data for poverty by state and looked at 2017, the most recent year for which data was available. While there are two main Census Bureau sources for poverty statistics -- the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey -- experts we consulted with agreed that the American Community Survey data was better for a statewide statistic because it has a much larger sample size.

It’s correct that West Virginia had the fourth-highest poverty rate of any state in 2017, at 19.1 percent. The states that had higher rates were, in descending order, Mississippi, Louisiana and New Mexico.

“In 2017, West Virginia’s $43,469 median household income was $16,867 below the national average, ranking 50th.”

Claim by: Democratic state Sen. Mike Romano

True

In September 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report that included data for household income in 2017. The figure for the United States was $60,336, while the figure for West Virginia was $43,469. The difference is exactly $16,867, as Romano said.

Meanwhile, we ranked the 50 states by household income and found that West Virginia ranked last, trailing Mississippi by $60.

“Last year we had the eighth fastest-growing economy in the country in West Virginia.”

Claim by: U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va.

Mostly False

Earlier this year, data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis -- the federal office that calculates economic growth in the states -- showed that West Virginia ranked 11th in inflation-adjusted growth in gross domestic product between 2016 and 2017, with a 2.6 percent increase. That’s not the same as eighth, but it’s close.

That data, however, was subsequently updated, and the newer data is less favorable to West Virginia.

In the most recent calculations, West Virginia actually ranked 19th out of the 50 states in year-over-year change in GDP, with a 2.2 percent increase. So West Virginia was in the top half of the ratings table, but well below the eighth-place finish that McKinley cited.

West Virginia “has the highest overdose rate per capita of any state in our nation.”

Claim by: U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

True

We turned to an analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was collected and analyzed by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The data is from 2016.

Manchin’s tweet wasn’t specific about whether he was referring to opioid overdoses specifically or overdoses generally. The Kaiser Family Foundation analysis includes data for both, so we looked at both categories.

On both lists, West Virginia has the unhappy distinction of ranking No. 1.

The opioid overdose rate in West Virginia easily outpaces the second-ranking state, New Hampshire. As for overdoses overall, West Virginia finishes first, with Ohio ranking second.

“Black lung cases are at a 25-year high.”

U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

True

Black lung disease, also called coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is caused by dusts that are inhaled and deposited in the lungs, which can create scar tissue that makes it more difficult to breathe. The condition can be prevented with appropriate respiratory protection, but once it develops, there is no cure, according to the American Lung Association.

A news release from Manchin and Capito cited a study published by the American Journal of Public Health. Researchers used radiographs collected from 1970 to 2017 to determine the ebb and flow of the disease.

The study found that not only have black lung cases increased but also that their prevalence will likely be reflected in future trends of such conditions as progressive massive fibrosis, which refers to masses in the upper pulmonary lobes of the lungs.

The report shows that around 1970, the prevalence of black lung was far higher than it is today — about 30 percent of miners with the longest tenures. That rate fell steadily, and by the late 1990s it had declined to the single digits.

But that decline has since reversed. Now, the national prevalence in miners with 25 years or more of tenure exceeds 10 percent, and in central Appalachia, 20.6 percent of long-tenured miners have the disease.

Some context on education

West Virginia University’s incoming freshman class has the “highest-ever GPA.”

Claim by: WVU President Gordon Gee

Mostly True

On the university’s website, it says that “the average student enrolled in WVU’s Fall 2018 freshman class had a 3.55 high school GPA, an ACT score of 24 and a combined Math and Critical Reading SAT score of 1133.

Stephen Lee, WVU’s associate vice president of enrollment management and executive director of admissions and recruitment, provided PolitiFact with a partial run of older data.

The data Lee provided shows that average GPAs for the previous three years were 3.47 for the freshmen of 2017, 3.46 for the freshmen of 2016, and 3.45 for the freshmen of 2015.

The data shows a steady increase in the freshman GPA, which supports Gee’s point, but the data goes back only to 1995. So we can’t independently confirm that this fall’s freshmen have the highest GPAs “ever.”

“From 1990 to 2015 under (Democratic) control, W. Va. teacher pay rank plummeted from 30th in the nation to 48th.”

Claim by: Republican state Del. Paul Espinosa

Mostly False

The numbers vary a bit from measurement to measurement, but there’s no question that West Virginia currently ranks near the bottom of the 50 states in teacher pay.

A CNN article published around the time of the West Virginia teacher strike, on March 5, 2018, pegged the state at 48th in the nation -- consistent with Espinosa’s second figure. The article cited data collected by National Education Association, a prominent teachers union.

We were able to find a more recent figure from the NEA and by then, West Virginia’s ranking had grown even worse. It fell for the second year in a row, to 49th.

Meanwhile, we located data from earlier NEA surveys and found that West Virginia hasn’t ranked higher than 44th since 2004.

However, we weren’t able to find NEA data online prior to 2003, so we turned instead to data collected by the federal Education Department. This data set goes back to the late 1960s.

This data shows that West Virginia pay has trailed national pay by a fairly consistent margin since at least 2000. It also shows that teacher pay hasn’t kept up with inflation during the last decade.

As for West Virginia’s ranking nationally, it fell precipitously between about 1970 and 1990, then spiked upward before starting to decline again around 2000.

Whether the Democrats are to blame, however, is more of a mixed picture than Espinosa lets on.

First off, the time period is cherry-picked. The legislature had been controlled by the Democrats for decades until the GOP won control in the 2014 elections. By ending his time frame at 2015, Espinosa  overlooks the period when the GOP controlled the Legislature -- a period in which the state’s teacher pay ranking has fallen, according to the annual NEA data.

In addition, the 1990-to-2015 time frame cuts out the governorship of Republican Arch Moore (who served three non-consecutive terms, from 1969 to 1977 and from 1985 to 1989). It also cuts out the current governorship of Jim Justice, who was elected as a Democrat but later switched to the GOP. Currently, Republicans control the governorship as well as both chambers of the legislature.

As it happens, the greatest increase in the teacher pay rankings during the period Espinosa cited came between about 1990 and 2000. During most of that period, the state had a Democratic governor, Gaston Caperton. A couple years of that time span were under a Republican governor, Cecil Underwood.

Ultimately, then, the partisan blame does not accrue exclusively to the Democrats.