Why is West Virginia GDP Up and Employment Down? Fracking?
Workforce West Virginia recently released 2013 data on employment and wages that show West Virginia has about 7,000 fewer jobs (on average) in 2013 than it did in 2012. In contrast, two weeks ago the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis released state data for real Gross Domestic Product growth that showed West Virginia's economy grew by 5.1 percent from 2012 to 2013 (after adjusting for inflation), which was higher than all but two states.
How can West Virginia's economy be growing when jobs are declining? Let's take a closer look to find out why.
First, let's look at West Virginia real GDP growth compared to job growth provided by the Quarterly Census of Wages and Employment (which included workers that are covered by unemployment insurance) that is released by Workforce West Virginia. As you can see in these two charts, the relationship between the growth of the economy (real GDP) and jobs has been tenuous over the last several years. While real GDP grew by 16.2 percent since 2002, job growth was an anemic three percent.
The gap in growth in 2012-2013 was especially large, with real GDP growing 5.1 percent while job growth was down one percent. To help explain this disparity, it important to first look at why real GDP grew in the first place. As this next chart shows, it is overwhelmingly due to the the mining sector, which is primarily the coal and natural gas industries. Without this growth of $3.3 billion (40 percent), West Virginia would have experienced negative real GDP growth from 2012 to 2013.
The mining sector is also becoming a much larger piece of the state's economy, accounting for nearly 17.8 percent of the state's GDP compared to just 6.5 percent in 2002. The recent uptick in the mining sector is due to the boom in shale gas extraction in the north-central part of the state. Meanwhile, West Virginia coal production has declined over the last several years and so has its share of the economy.
Interestingly, the huge jump in mining GDP was not the product of higher wages or employment. Total mining wages declined slightly from $2.6 billion in 2012 to $2.5 billion in 2013 and total mining employment fell by 1,830 (natural gas gained 567 jobs, but looking more broadly at other natural gas sectors like pipeline construction and transportation, distribution, and field machinery, it fell about 173 jobs).
There could be several reasons for the dramatic one-year change in mining real GDP. It could be that the mining real GDP data are wrong, which is always subject to revisions over time, or that the new and more comprehensive revisions of state GDP captured something new in 2013. Or it could be that there was a glut in natural gas storage in the state and that it was finally sold in 2013 at a higher price that boosted productivity and GDP. Another thing to keep in mind is that the natural gas industry is very capital intensive, meaning that it relies less on workers and more on machinery and equipment to produce its value-added product.
While we cannot say with certainty why mining GDP is growing rapidly at the same time wages and employment are stagnating, we can say that it has not translated into broader economic growth in the state in 2013. We can also say that the link between GDP growth and wage growth is not as strong as it used to be. As the chart below shows, wages used to make up over 50 percent of West Virginia's GDP. Today, they are only 40 percent. There has also been a similar decline in total compensation, which includes pensions, health care, social insurance, and profit-sharing. This means that workers are not benefiting from productivity growth and that more money is flowing to the top via profits and capital income.
Over the last several years, West Virginia has exacerbated this problem by cutting corporate taxes and gutting its estate tax while investing less in higher education and other budget priorities. Reversing this trend in inequality and boosting quality job growth will require policy action at both the federal and state level.