As the state and New River Gorge region continue to recover from the economic devastation of Covid’s arrival a year ago March, and as federal resources in large sums are being shipped to West Virginia, we must make certain that those dollars are spent wisely – locally and statewide – on programs that will lift entire populations up off the floor boards of despair.
Toward that end, we are impressed with the collaboration across various local governing bodies, colleges, trade schools, nonprofits, the local chamber of commerce and the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority. Clearly, there is a shared interest and energy and theirs is a shared mission, sans politics, to be better connected, married in a symbiotic relationship in service of whole communities to create a tide of economic growth that will lift all boats.
Demographic data speaks to the stubborn, old challenges that many of those organizations, if not all, are battling. If there was a message that resonated from the Economic Summit in Beckley on Thursday, it was this: The region and state will never unlock the shackles of economic underperformance if we do not invest in people – “human capital” in economic parlance – so that they are clean and sober, educated and skilled, healthy and alert, ready and willing, prepared, in short, to participate in and stoke the fires of a resurgent economy.
Dr. John Deskins, who serves as director of the Bureau of Business & Economic Research at West Virginia University, said during his summit presentation that the potential exists to change the region’s prospects. But he also said that it would be no easy lift. We are dealing, after all, with decades-old problems. The state ranks dead last in workforce participation and has had the problem with people showing up for work since the 1970s. The state also trails all other states in the percent of the population holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. West Virginia ranks first in overall mortality rate thanks to the known ravages of smoking, obesity and heart disease. And the state is also tops, No. 1, in drug overdose deaths.
Not exactly a badge of honor to wear, a flag to wave or a statistic to market a wild and wonderful experience.
Under these conditions, the future is nothing but cloudy, dark and dreary, not exactly the ball of sunshine that attracts newly minted college graduates or convinces others to stay put. It is no wonder that outmigration of people, especially our best and brightest, has helped put our state’s population in a perpetual retreat.
So how do we fix all of the above?
The state may never see federal investments of this magnitude for another generation – if then. Likewise, the state’s revenue surpluses and its rainy day fund are flush with cash. In the recently passed federal infrastructure bill, at least $6 billion is headed to the Mountain State, and all of that is welcome as our state’s roads and bridges, water and sewer lines, broadband and transportation systems all need serious upgrades far in excess of what monies are headed this way.
But all of that is just a start on hard infrastructure, all of which will largely be for naught if we do not address the foundational issues of drug addiction, education and workforce participation.
Some of that is addressed in another bill in the U.S. Senate that carries a $1.85 trillion price tag, targeting, among other worthy projects, access to education for young and old alike.
Meanwhile, here in West Virginia, we cannot make headway if we have a Legislature that thinks it’s a good idea to put harsh and punitive regulations on harm reduction programs. And if the numerous surges of Covid infections have taught us anything, it is this: Our public health system leaves a great deal to be desired. When our county health boards, understaffed and overwhelemed, were overrun throughout this pandemic, unable to keep pace with necessary mitigation efforts, they also had to curtail their outreach in support of those desperate to crack their substance addictions.
Additionally, we cannot have a governor who runs around the state on the taxpayer dime, bragging about his popularity in polling while the state he governs ranks last in educational achievement, where too many of our graduating high school seniors are sent into remedial college classes – to learn what they should have learned in high school – once they arrive on campus, and where too few high school grads pursue higher education.
Fixing the education component is far more complex than giving teachers a raise and opening the state’s border and pocketbook to charter schools.
But this is the time to get serious about it all – if, in fact, we want to remove all that is standing in the way of growth, of achievement.
Several folks at the local level are showing us all how to do just that, without the political infighting. The governor and state legislators might want to pay attention.