Free trade and W.Va.’s economy

Many of the economic problems afflicting West Virginia are directly tied to the loss of jobs and opportunity caused by the proliferation of free trade agreements in the last forty-plus years. Cities and towns across the state that used to thrive are nearly devoid of all economic activity. Once-booming steel, chemical, glass, and timber industries have all but vanished from the state and have left behind a vacuum that has been filled by government dependence, drugs, crime, and blight.

To see the stark contrast from past to present, simply look at some old photos from the 1960s and early 1970s of places like Clarksburg, Richwood, Hinton, Williamson, and many other large and small towns throughout the state.

One income in those days could provide for the entire household because wages, in real terms, had greater buying power. Often one could get a good paying job in the town they lived in, right out of high school. The pay was good, and employers offered defined benefit pension plans rather than defined contribution 401(k) plans.

Unfortunately, the economic landscape has changed dramatically across the entire country, and the effects have been more acutely felt in West Virginia.

After the implementation of the laissez-faire free trade policies pushed by the wealthy leadership of both political parties, the state lost a significant portion of its manufacturing base as those jobs were outsourced from the United States. Coal has always been a significant part of West Virginia’s economy, but it was by no means the exclusive industry in years past. Gone are the steel plants of Wheeling and Weirton; the glass factories of Morgantown and Fairmont; aluminum plants in Ravenswood; tool manufacturing plants in Parkersburg; and the chemical industry in the Kanawha Valley, to name a few.

Moreover, the loss of the secondary businesses that operated in conjunction with the primary industries mentioned above has had as large of an impact as the loss of those primary jobs. Nearly every region of the state has been negatively impacted by inequitable free trade agreements that started in earnest around the mid-1970s with the exodus of good, high paying, manufacturing jobs.

As these labor-intensive industries dried up in West Virginia, there was little else for these workers and their families to do. Many families moved to other states that fared better. For remote areas of the state, where a sizable portion of the population has little to no job opportunities, many end up without a purpose or a way to make a living. Some turn to drugs and alcohol. Others rely on government assistance to survive. Moving is not an option because moving costs money and requires a marketable skill with which to secure a job in other locations. Those stuck here without a prospect of employment have nothing to look forward to when they wake up, so their days are often filled by consuming drugs and alcohol, and possibly crime and vagrancy.

Travel the state and see the abandoned homes and shuttered factories. West Virginia is one of only two states seeing a decline in population. The other is Michigan, who has not been able to recover from the loss of manufacturing in cities like Flint and Detroit. Coincidence? Hardly. The two states are perfect examples of what happens when a country does not protect its domestic industries and the American worker. Wages stagnate. Cities and town shrivel up to half their size or simply become ghost towns. Commercial activity and tax revenues contract to the point that services must be cut to meet budgetary constraints.

The need for these industries did not disappear, nor did the demand for the goods and materials they produced. These industries are still in operation, albeit in other countries.

Corporations pushed for and took advantage of liberalized trade agreements to offshore operations to exploit the low labor costs and lax regulatory standards of third-world countries. Both parties continued to sell out the American worker in favor of multinational corporations and our allies who fear the consequences of having to pay full price for their national defense.

Both political parties dogmatically championed free trade over domestic producers at the expense of the American worker. The consequences have been dire. Especially for West Virginia.

Nigel Jeffries