Waterman lost her home in a devastating flood almost four years ago and sometimes sleeps bundled under thick blankets in the back seat of her pickup. She lives in a community with nearly 1 in 5 people in poverty. Looking around at gutted buildings, weathered mobile homes and makeshift trailer classrooms at the high school, Waterman, 74, said it's hard to put much faith in the governor's message about the pace of economic recovery.
“If someone's going to stand there and tell you how wonderful they are, are you going to believe them?" she asked. As described by Justice, the West Virginia economy is worth celebrating. His refrain about the fast food chain echoes frequent boasts by President Donald Trump, a close ally, that the U.S. economy is performing as never before.
Heading into a reelection campaign, the billionaire Republican governor who sells himself on his business skills has been on a highlight tour, repeatedly telling the public that the state's job numbers are the best in a decade.
“If you don't think things are rosy, you're just out of your mind,” Justice said in a recent interview. He declined to comment to The Associated Press. Yet when it comes to the substance of his job pronouncements, experts say the governor is cherry-picking data to paint a picture of life in the state that doesn't square with reality for West Virginians.
“People in West Virginia aren't buying that," said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a nonprofit research organization. "They know that things haven't gotten dramatically better here in the state in the last couple years."
Justice has built some of his narrative around data from WorkForce West Virginia, a state economic agency that uses federal statistics, to say the state added about 19,000 jobs in the past year. But on the same January day that he announced “West Virginia job numbers best in over a decade...AGAIN,” WorkForce's own news release struck a different tone. Unemployment had risen, the agency noted, and the state had actually lost nearly 3,000 jobs across various sectors in the past year.
Economists said the governor has been touting an indicator drawn from a relatively small federal Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of households that is used more often to figure out labor force and demographic information than as a measure of job gains or losses.
“The numbers that they are using, they're not necessarily what we'd call indicative of the actual conditions now,” West Virginia University economics professor Brian Lego said. He said looking at quarterly census data or other long-term statistics offers a better understanding of economic health.
Justice's economic picture also has been subject to significant revisions. Last year, the governor interrupted an interview with one of his Cabinet secretaries to gush about a bit of economic news. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross had tweeted a congratulatory message to Justice directly for West Virginia having the country's highest personal income growth in the first quarter of the year.
“How much more proof do we need that our days of being dead 50th are long gone?" he said in a statement trumpeting the news. Three months later, federal officials revised the figure and dropped West Virginia from first to almost last in the nation for personal income growth. Still, even as he acknowledged the change, Justice put out a statement titled “Personal income up $3 BILLION in West Virginia.”
“West Virginians deserve to be congratulated for these numbers,” Justice said then. “We are really moving in the right direction. There’s still a lot more to do, but we’re on it." Under Justice, the state has experienced some economic growth, largely driven by natural gas pipeline construction, according to a report from West Virginia University. Though, economists warn that job gains in pipeline construction will dry up once the infrastructure is completed or if legal challenges continue to halt work.
The governor came into office promising an economic “rocket ship ride” for West Virginians. This year, during his State of the State address, he described the future as more like a lightning bolt, full of ups and downs but ultimately pointing upward. He maintained the air of optimism even as he previewed a flatbudget, and his administration projects deficits over the next several years. Later, he dismissed a question about the expected budget gaps as “garbage.”
The governor's critics say the sunny picture he paints damages his credibility. “When the governor says something, very few people take him at his word,” said Del. Isaac Sponaugle, a Democrat. “He certainly likes to be optimistic, but you've got to tell the truth.”