Earnings Shift

Changes are taking place in West Virginia at a pace that has left many in positions of authority scrambling to catch up. It is tempting to celebrate one such shift, as an indicator of the degree to which women in the Mountain State have outdone their counterparts across the country in attaining career goals. In fact, according to a study by the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy, married women in West Virginia bring in a higher percentage, 50.1 percent, of their families’ income than in every other state but Florida.

Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, was surprised by the result, having assumed our state still had a predominately male breadwinner culture, particularly in rural areas.

“In my head, I thought that was pretty prevalent, but I have no data to support that at all,” he said.

Boettner believed, as so many do, that West Virginia continued to fall under a very traditional family-earnings model. But the results of this study demonstrate a couple of truths – the first as old as the hills. West Virginia women are, by and large, survivors who work hard and do whatever is necessary to take care of their families.

But secondly, as one women put it after she became her family’s breadwinner when her husband lost his coal-mining job, “I had no other choice.”

Married women earning more than half of their families’ income in West Virginia are doing so because the jobs traditionally held by their husbands are disappearing. Construction, manufacturing, coal mining, even front-end natural gas exploration – goods-producing jobs – are going away. Another number from the study has a much more negative ring to it. In our state, 83.1 percent of married men are employees – the lowest rate in the country.

Policymakers must update their thinking on West Virginia’s economy. If the director of the Center on Budget and Policy was caught off guard by the transition that has taken place, what hope can we have the elected officials and bureaucrats in Charleston have any idea what we are facing?