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Checking Bernie Sanders on Life Expectancy in Virginia, West Virginia

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign stop Thursday, May 5, 2016 at the Morgantown Event Center. Photo: Jesse Wright/WVPB

During a June 12 speech at George Washington University, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders offered what he said was a stark example of income inequality and its real-world consequences.

“In 2014, for example, in McDowell County, W.Va., one of the poorest counties in the nation, life expectancy for men was 64 years. In Fairfax County, Va., a wealthy county, just 350 miles away, life expectancy was nearly 82 years, an 18-year differential. The life expectancy gap for women in the two counties was 12 years.” 

Was Sanders right? We took a closer look. (Sanders’ campaign did not respond to an inquiry.)

Let’s start by noting that the two counties are indeed at opposite ends of the income spectrum.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, McDowell County, in the heart of Appalachian coal country, has a median household income of $25,595, about 44 percent of the national median household income of $57,652.

By contrast, Fairfax County, located in the affluent suburbs of Washington, D.C., has a median household income of $117,515, or slightly more than double the national median. 

So median household income is more than four times higher in Fairfax County than it is in McDowell County.

What about life expectancy?

The longest-running data on life expectancy by county in the United States is compiled by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. We used the institute’s interactive database to find the most recent data for both of the counties Sanders mentioned.

Here’s a summary for 2014, the most recent year available:

The data shows that life expectancy is a few years longer than Sanders said for men in McDowell County — 67 instead of 64 — which in turn makes the gap for men between the two counties 15 years, rather than the 18-year figure Sanders cited.

For women, Sanders also is slightly off — there’s an 11-year gap rather than a 12-year gap.

But while Sanders is a bit off on the numbers, his overall point is sound. In fact, not only can people in Fairfax County expect to live longer than those in McDowell County, but the gap between the two has been widening for nearly four decades.

This chart shows life expectancy for men, women, and both in the two counties since 1980. Figures for McDowell County are shown in red, and figures for Fairfax County are shown in green. It’s easy to see the trend lines going in opposite directions.

It appears that Sanders’ comparison actually emerged more than five years ago, in a New York Times article by Annie Lowrey. She wrote:

Fairfax County, Va., and McDowell County, W.Va., are separated by 350 miles, about a half-day’s drive. Traveling west from Fairfax County, the gated communities and bland architecture of military contractors give way to exurbs, then to farmland and eventually to McDowell’s coal mines and the forested slopes of the Appalachians. Perhaps the greatest distance between the two counties is this: Fairfax is a place of the haves, and McDowell of the have-nots. …

One of the starkest consequences of that divide is seen in the life expectancies of the people there. Residents of Fairfax County are among the longest-lived in the country: Men have an average life expectancy of 82 years and women, 85, about the same as in Sweden. In McDowell, the averages are 64 and 73, about the same as in Iraq.

Our ruling

Sanders said, “In 2014 … in McDowell County, W.Va., one of the poorest counties in the nation, life expectancy for men was 64 years. In Fairfax County, Va., a wealthy county, just 350 miles away, life expectancy was nearly 82 years, an 18 year differential. The life expectancy gap for women in the two counties was 12 years.” 

A few of these numbers are slightly off, but Sanders’ overall point that there is a large gap in life expectancy between the two counties is solid. We rule his statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

Fact Check

Fact-check: Does West Virginia Rank Sixth in the Nation in At-Risk Youth?

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Williamson, W.Va., has become known as a center for the abuse of prescription opioid painkillers, which has worsened the outlook for many younger West Virginians. Photo: AP Photo/Tyler Evert

Woody Thrasher, a Republican who is challenging West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice in the 2020 GOP primary, took to Twitter to call out the state’s level of at-risk youth on his opponent’s watch.

“‘West Virginia is sixth overall in the average number of at-risk youth.’ Let’s turn this around and grow our workforce by supporting post-secondary training programs. #TimeToGetToWorkWV #wvpol,” Thrasher tweeted.

Here, we won’t address whether or how much post-secondary training programs can help at-risk youth. Instead, we’ll focus on the credibility of his statement that “West Virginia is sixth overall in the average number of at-risk youth.”

There are certainly warning signs about West Virginia’s youth, many of them traceable to the opioid crisis. We have rated as True the statement that West Virginia “has the highest overdose rate per capita of any state in our nation.”

The drug epidemic is “the driving force in (the) child welfare crisis,” the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources said in a statement in February 2018. The department said that the opioid crisis has made it difficult to help get children back on their feet and is making them more prone to mental-health issues. 

But how does West Virginia compare nationally?

In his tweet, Thrasher linked to a July 18 editorial in the Exponent-Telegram newspaper of Clarksburg. The editorial includes the exact sentence Thrasher quoted, and it says the source is the most recent edition of an annual survey by the website WalletHub. Thrasher’s campaign also confirmed to PolitiFact West Virginia that the WalletHub survey was the source.

As Thrasher indicated, the WalletHub report does show West Virginia ranking sixth in at-risk youth, behind Louisiana, the District of Columbia, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Nevada. 

The website determined the overall rankings by weighting 15 different metrics. They include the population aged 18 to 24 years who are not attending school, not working and have no degree beyond a high school diploma; the labor force participation rate, the poverty rate, and the homelessness rate for the population aged 16 to 24 years; the rate of teen pregnancy; the percentage of those under age 21 who are detained in residential facilities in the criminal justice system; and the percentage of youth who are overweight, who use drugs, who have alcohol problems, or who have clinical depression.

We reached out to several of the academic advisers to the WalletHub study. The only one to answer us was Rigaud Joseph, an assistant professor of social work at California State University San Bernardino. However, Joseph said that he “did not have any statistical input in the study. WalletHub decided on the criteria for the rankings.”

So we turned to independent experts, who said that WalletHub’s study was credible.

“The WalletHub methodology seems fine and it generates a credible ranking of states,” said Gary Natriello, a professor of educational research, sociology, and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “Other rankings would be possible if different combinations of indicators were used, but West Virginia would likely be among the states with the most at-risk youth, as Thrasher’s statement suggests.”

Our ruling

Thrasher said that “West Virginia is sixth overall in the average number of at-risk youth.”

He is correctly citing a study by the website WalletHub that came up with its ranking by using 15 metrics on youth health, employment, and education. An expert said this is a reasonable way to compare states against each other, though it’s hardly the only way; the use of other data points or weighting of the factors could produce somewhat different rankings.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Is West Virginia Short of 20,000 Skilled Workers its Economy Needs?

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Chris Book, who was accepted into a sheet-metal apprentice program, performs maintenance work on the floor in the cargo hold of a Boeing 737. Photo: AP/Michael Conroy

Is West Virginia falling significantly behind in the job skills required for today’s economy? West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee said so in an address to students at Musselman High School in Berkeley County.

“In West Virginia, we have 20,000 jobs in which we don’t have skilled workers,” Gee told students at the high school

Gee’s office told PolitiFact West Virginia that they could not point to the original source of the statistic. However, we were able to reverse-engineer data that falls short of Gee’s number.

This gets a bit complicated, so bear with us. Here’s the overall concept. First, we’ll estimate the total number of job openings in West Virginia that require skilled workers. Then we’ll look into how hard these jobs are to fill, based on the educational shortcomings of West Virginia’s workforce.  

How many job openings in West Virginia require advanced skills?

On the job openings side, Brian Lego, a research assistant professor at WVU’s College of Business and Economics, suggested we look at data produced on an experimental basis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal government’s chief agency for employment statistics.

This data in question is a spinoff of the longstanding Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, which produces monthly estimates of job openings, hires, and employee departures on a national basis. For several years, the bureau has also produced an experimental study of this data on a state-by-state basis, which is what Lego was referring to.

We looked at the most recent data for West Virginia, which covers the first six months of 2019. We found that in each of those six months, West Virginia had 38,000 job openings. (BLS acknowledges that this is an estimate, though the agency says it isn’t sure what the margin of error is.)

This 38,000 figure represents all job openings in West Virginia — not necessarily those requiring advanced skills.

However, we found a way to estimate the percentage requiring advanced skills, using data in a report published by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The report is from 2010, but it offered projections for the share of jobs in every state by 2018 that would require various levels of educational attainment, so it should offer a rough guide.

For West Virginia, the report said, 9% of jobs would be open to high school dropouts, 38% would require a high school degree, 12% would require some college but not a college degree, 15% would require an associate’s degree, 17% would require a bachelor’s degree, and 8% would require a master’s degree or higher.

All told, the Georgetown data sees 25% of jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher. And 25% of 38,000 job openings in West Virginia works out to 9,500 job openings in any given month that require a bachelor’s degree. 

How big are the educational shortcomings in West Virginia’s workforce?

This 9,500 figure refers to the number of high-skill job openings in West Virginia — the demand side. What about the supply side — the share of West Virginia workers who have the necessary skills to fill those jobs?

We found a way to estimate that number, too. 

Statistics from the U.S. Education Department show that in 2016, about 21% of West Virginians age 25 and up had a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, in October 2019, West Virginia had 38,052 unemployed workers

If one assumes that this group of unemployed workers is a representative cross-section of the state’s educational attainment patterns, this would mean there are just under 8,000 unemployed West Virginians who could fill a job requiring a bachelor’s degree. But in reality, better-educated workers tend to be more likely to be employed, meaning the actual number of unemployed workers with a bachelor’s degree is probably well below 8,000. 

Tara Sinclair, a George Washington University economist, told PolitiFact West Virginia that a reasonable guess is probably 4,000.

So of the 9,500 West Virginia job openings requiring a bachelor’s degree, qualified workers who are currently unemployed could potentially fill a 4,000 of those. That leaves 4,500 bachelor’s-level jobs unfilled. 

And that’s quite a bit smaller than Gee’s 20,000 figure.

Some caveats

We should emphasize that our estimates involve a lot of moving parts, each with a source of statistical error.

We also focused on bachelor’s-level jobs. If we were to instead define “skilled” positions as requiring at least some college experience, the supply of skilled jobs could go as high as 53%, according to the Georgetown University data. That works out to 21,400 jobs requiring advanced skills, rather than 9,500. Using this broader number could make Gee’s figures closer to accurate.

Finally, we should note that in the Georgetown comparison, West Virginia ranks 51st in the nation — dead last among the 50 states and the District of Columbia — in the percentage of jobs requiring advanced skills. So West Virginia may require advanced skills to fill many of its jobs, but the pressure to fill these advanced-skill jobs is weaker in West Virginia than it is in every other state.

“Gee’s argument could have been better supported by focusing on the deficit of college educated workers in West Virginia compared to the rest of the U.S. — 21% versus 31%,” Sinclair said. “That seems to be a really big problem. That might actually be the driver of West Virginia’s ranking in terms of jobs requiring college degrees: Employers go where the workers are.”

Our ruling

Gee said, “In West Virginia, we have 20,000 jobs in which we don’t have skilled workers.”

Gee has put his finger on what experts say is a genuine concern for West Virginia — the mismatch between educational attainment and skills requirements for job openings — but he’s overestimated the specific figure.

He was unable to back up this figure, and when we tried to come up with an estimate, we found that the number is probably around 4,500.

We rate his statement Half True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Does China Burn Seven to Eight Times as Much Coal as the U.S.?

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In this Feb. 26, 2019, file photo, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at a news conference at a gun control advocacy event in Las Vegas. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice criticized former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $500 million effort to close the nation’s coal plants at a news conference Monday, June 10, 2019, saying it will destroy the economy of his coal-producing state. Photo: AP Photo/John Locher, File

When former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he would spend $500 million on a Beyond Carbon initiative, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice joined energy industry representatives at a press conference to denounce the effort.

The project Justice criticized aspires to retire all coal use by 2030 while securing an economic future for fossil fuel-producing communities. 

In an op-ed announcing the effort, Bloomberg — who has since entered the Democratic presidential primary race — touted an existing partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Sierra Club that has “shut down 289 coal-fired power plants since 2011.”

The new initiative would build on this effort and also “work to stop the construction of new gas plants,” Bloomberg wrote. “By the time they are built, they will be out of date because renewable energy will be cheaper.”

Justice, a Republican whose state is a leading producer of coal and other carbon-based energy, said the effort could be “catastrophic” to West Virginia. (Justice himself also inherited a coal mining business and continues to own several mines.)

At one point in the press conference, Justice was asked about the environmental impacts of fossil fuels. He responded by questioning the value of the United States cutting back if China is using carbon-based fuels on full blast.

“How does it make sense that in China, they’re burning seven to eight times the amount of coal that we’re burning in the United States?” Justice asked.

Is his comparison accurate? Justice’s ratio is not far from the reported data, though it’s worth noting that the reason for the discrepancy has a lot to do with the fact that China has a much larger population. (His office did not respond to inquiries for this article.)

A look at the numbers

There’s little doubt that, as a whole, coal consumption by China is several times larger than it is in the United States.

According to the 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, China’s coal consumption was 1.91 billion tons of oil equivalent in 2018. In the same year, the United States consumed 317 million tons. That means China consumed about six times as much coal as the United States did.

Another data source, the Global Energy Statistical Yearbook 2019 published by Enerdata, an energy intelligence and consulting firm, found a nearly identical difference — China was about six times larger than the U.S. in consumption of coal and lignite (a low-efficiency type of coal).

Justice didn’t mention it, but another country, India, also consumes more coal than the United States does — 452 million tons of oil equivalent, according to the BP review.

What about population?

We’ll note that the difference in coal consumption between China and the United States is partially explained by the two countries’ differences in population — China has about 4.3 times higher in population than the United States.

However, adjusting for population is less significant in this case than it often is, given Justice’s point. 

Justice is arguing that greenhouse gases do not stay within national borders; they spread everywhere in the atmosphere. So any decreases in carbon emissions made in the United States will be a relatively small factor compared to China in the global context — regardless of which country has a bigger population.

Indeed, according to the BP data, China accounted for just over half of the world’s coal consumption in 2018. In addition, the same data shows that China’s coal consumption increased by 1.8% between 2007 and 2017, whereas U.S. coal consumption declined by 4.9%.

Unlike the United States, which has a lot of economically competitive natural gas under development, China doesn’t, said Anna Mikulska, a nonresident fellow in energy studies at the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“China has to go against the economic calculus to retire at least some of the coal if it wants to lower emission levels,” she said. “This is why we see China still consuming so much.” Mikulska added that the current trade friction with China “does not help, as China turns more to domestic or regional resources due to energy security concerns. One of them is coal.”

That said, the Paris-based International Energy Agency, has projected that China’s coal consumption will indeed decline over the next two decades. “This new direction will have consequences that are no less significant for China and the world than its earlier period of energy-intensive development.”

Our ruling

Justice said that China today is “burning seven to eight times the amount of coal that we’re burning in the United States.”

The actual number is a little bit less than that — China consumes roughly six times the amount of coal as the United States does. But that’s pretty close. We rate the statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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