Finding truth in numbers

Not too long ago, a West Virginia candidate for the U.S. Senate reminded me “West Virginia had the second-highest gross domestic product growth in the nation last year,” as he was discussing improvements in the state’s economic outlook since the 2016 presidential election.

I raised my eyebrows and said “Really? Sure doesn’t seem that way.” He confessed most people have the same reaction. There is a disconnect between what the numbers say and what people feel in their daily lives.

To me, that is a big deal, but I needed help understanding why it is the case.

Fortunately, John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University, was able to explain it to me.

First, he said that GDP growth claim is true.

“GDP for 2017 was good for the whole year,” he said. “But that’s a growth number. That’s how much we’ve improved from where we were a year prior.”

On the other hand, Deskins said, GDP in West Virginia did not grow — at all — for a five-year stretch before that. So we were starting from zero.

“It’s natural after the recession ends for the economy to bounce back,” Deskins said. “But we were starting from a low base. To build off that base is going to give you a higher percentage growth factor than if you’re building off a high base.

“Because we had a low starting point, it exaggerated the growth figure,” he said.

Ah. Now it is starting to make more sense. We made good progress in a growth spurt that started from nothing. We are no where near catching up with the rest of the country.

“We still have a long way to go,” Deskins said. “Income in West Virginia is still 75 percent of the national figure. We have a long way to go to be at the national average.”

So while it is fun to toss around a shiny number like 3 percent GDP growth in the first quarter of 2017, there are other factors that have kept the average West Virginian from being able to bask in the progress.

“The big challenge is still labor force participation,” Deskins said. The Mountain State has the lowest rate in the country. West Virginians over age 16 who are capable of working are employed — or unemployed but looking for a job — at a lower rate than anywhere else. Far too many have simply given up.

“It shows how much further we have to progress before we reach a level of prosperity that would be considered even average,” said Deskins.

Meanwhile, according to Deskins, from 2012 to 2016, West Virginia lost 26,000 jobs. During the past year-and-a-half the state has added back 4,500.

“The growth we’ve seen is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the growth we need to see,” he said.

For the average Mountain State resident, then, the disconnect between glowing numbers tossed around by politicians and what they and their families feel every day can be explained rather simply.

“The reason is we’re still so far from where we want to be,” Deskins said “(The GDP figure) has nothing to do with where we started and where we need to be.”

It is something to bear in mind as we enter the fevered last days before the primary election. Why are we still so far from where we want and need to be? And who has a plan — and the courage to follow through with that plan — to get us there?

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com

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