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West Virginia progresses further

By Staff | Jul 29, 2011

Last week we talked about statistics that demonstrate West Virginia is one of the fiscally soundest states in the Union, and getting even sounder.

There are other areas in which our state has made major progress. We’ll talk about two of them this week. Some naysayers like to portray our state as being last or close to it in almost every statistic except the ones in which it’s good to be last. That’s changing.

In the 1970s West Virginia’s per capita income was at approximately the national average. By the 1990s it had dropped to 49th and remained there or many years. Our state was in the heart of the “rust belt.” Many of our people lost jobs in mining or manufacturing in their 50s. They could not find jobs for which they were qualified and decided it was too late in life to move elsewhere and start anew.

We became the oldest state in the union (in terms of the average age of our people). Retirees may or may not have wealth, but they definitely lack “income.” So by that measurement we have lagged.

But we’ve now turned the corner. Statistics recently released by the Buereau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of the Census (both agencies in the U.S. Department of Commerce) show that in 2010 West Virginia moved ahead of Utah and Idaho to 47th place in per capita income.

That’s certainly not good enough, but it’s not the whole story. West Virginia’s growth in per capita income was the ninth fastest of the 50 states. We’re on an upward track that looks to continue for awhile.

Passing Idaho has major policy significance. Idaho 25 years ago passed a so-called “right-to-work” law. If memory serves it is the most recent state to do so. About half of the 50 states have such laws.

Many conservatives argue that passage of a right-to-work law by a state that does not have one will result in a better economy. In our area they point to Virginia, which has such a law. But the results in Idaho should give everyone caution.

I have argued for many years that right-to-work is an irrellevancy. While Virginia does rank high (7th) among the states in per capita income, five of the top six (including neighboring Maryland at No. 4) are non right-to-work states.

Not only is right-to-work irrellevant, the term itself is a misnomer. A right-to-work law limits the options available to both labor and management to work out their differences.

In a non-right-to-work state like West Virginia there are three options available for labor-management relations. They are the “union shop,” the “open shop” and what I call “no shop.” Under the first an employee must join the recognized bargaining union within a few months of being hired. Under the second an employee may chose to join or not join the union recognized to bargain for the employees. Under the third employees are not permitted to even have a union. A right-to-work law merely eliminates the first option.

I’ve talked to many managers of large operations who tell me they prefer dealing with a union than having to guess what rules will make for the most productive workforce. In the recent labor relations drama of the National Football League a major complaint of the team owners was that the players decertified their union as their bargaining agent.

Another area of recent progress is dental care. For years we in the mountain state have had to endure endless jokes about the collective condition of our teeth.

But a new 50-state report card by the Pew Foundation’s Children’s Dental Campaign shows that West Virginia is one of the most improved states in the union. Our state raised its grade from an “F” to a “C,” becoming one of only six states to improve by at least two grade levels.

One of the reasons for our improved ranking is that on July 1 our state began reimbursing physicians who perform preventive dental services to children enrolled in the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Infants and toddlers are much more likely to see a pediatrician than a dentist.

As with per capita income we’re obviously not yet where we need to be. But we’ve finally begun moving in the right direction.