WASHINGTON ― In the world according to Donald Trump, West Virginia is “producing record setting numbers and doing really well” ― a complete reversal from when he took office, when “it was practically shut down and closed for business.”
In the actual world, West Virginia has increasing poverty, more deaths than births each year, a significantly smaller workforce than a decade ago and the lowest median household income in the country.
“We’re not this gangbusters economy that sometimes we’re portrayed as,” said Sean O’Leary, an analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, who said the main employment growth has been in construction jobs for new natural gas pipelines, which are temporary. “If you look outside that sector of the economy, there is almost no growth.”
John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University, said that the state’s economy is clearly better than it was several years ago but that the benefits have been concentrated in too few places and too few sectors. “We need things good to happen in more counties and more industries,” he said.
As Trump counterprograms special counsel Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony Wednesday with yet another visit to the state that gave him a 43-percentage-point victory in 2016, he is nearly certain to tout his fake, prosperous West Virginia rather than the true, impoverished one.
At an August, 2018, rally in Charleston, Trump claimed: “So we went from being down and out [to where] you’re one of the most successful in the union. Very close to the top. That is some big change.”
“By the way, your state is booming like never before,” Trump told a Wheeling rally audience the following month. “Poverty is plummeting.”
Economic data compiled by Trump’s own agencies, however, suggest the exact opposite.
A 2018 U.S. Census Bureau report found that West Virginia was one of a handful of states in the country where median household income actually decreased during Trump’s first year in office, falling $1,400 to $43,439 and dropping it below Mississippi to make it dead last among the 50 states. The state’s poverty rate increased to 19.1% in the same time period, a full 7 percentage points higher than the national average and the fourth worst in the country.
And though the unemployment rate has continued to decrease under Trump, as it had under former President Barack Obama, that has happened in part because residents have continued to retire, moved out of state or simply given up looking, O’Leary said. The state’s labor force is 25,000 smaller today than it was a decade ago, otherwise the unemployment rate would be 7% instead of 4.7%, he said.
A senior White House official, on condition of anonymity, pointed to a percentage-point reduction in the unemployment rate since Trump took office and an increase of 4.5% in private-sector hourly earnings over the past year. The official did not address HuffPost’s poverty or median household income statistics.
In West Virginia, Trump enjoys among his highest approval ratings in the country, and it has been a favorite Trump destination since his election. Wednesday he is scheduled to attend a closed-door fundraiser in Wheeling hosted by Robert Murray, the CEO of the coal mining company Murray Energy.
Trump has, since his election, repeatedly claimed that West Virginia’s coal industry has taken off. “Our great coal miners are back to work,” he said at the Wheeling rally.
In reality, there are 2,000 more coal mining jobs now than there were in late 2016, bringing the total to about 14,000. (By way of comparison, there were more than 40,000 coal mining jobs in the early 1980s.) That increase, though, is a result of a higher demand for coal overseas, not the result of any Trump policy.
One spike in demand for West Virginia coal in 2017, for example, happened because Cyclone Debbie struck key coal export docks and rail lines in Australia.
“What policy did you pass to make that happen?” O’Leary joked.
Trump, nevertheless, frequently touts his reversals of Obama-era environmental policies as behind a resurgence of coal mining in the country. “My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” he said in March 2017.
Statistics from his own Department of Energy, however, belie his claims about the industry’s comeback. Though West Virginia does have more coal jobs (but new mine closures are already erasing some of them), the industry nationally has continued to shed them. A July 9 report forecasts that U.S. coal production would be the lowest in 40 years. “Both exports and domestic consumption are expected to continue to weaken,” the report by the Energy Information Administration states.
As even coal industry officials have acknowledged, the bigger hit to coal mining jobs has not been environmental regulations as much as a glut of natural gas, which is cheaper to use per kilowatt of electricity and emits far less climate-change-inducing carbon dioxide and other pollutants.
“Natural gas prices have fallen to multiyear lows. And that’s hurting the coal industry overall,” said Joe Aldina, a coal industry analyst at the research firm S&P Global Platts. “It’s a tenuous picture for coal.”
That trend is taking place even in West Virginia itself. State lawmakers are in session working on a tax break to keep a coal-fired plant in Willow Island open. And a state-of-the-art coal plant whose construction was announced with much fanfare eight years ago for its efficiency and lower emissions is now seeking to add both a natural-gas plant as well as a solar farm to diversify for future years.
O’Leary said one big irony to the slightly lower unemployment rate in the state over the past year is that 12,700 of the state’s new, well-paying jobs are to build natural gas pipelines. Those jobs will disappear when the projects are finished next year ― while the pipelines themselves will further increase gas production and hurt coal mining even more.
“These are temporary jobs. When that construction is finished, that revenue dries up,” O’Leary said.