Child poverty hurting all of West Virginia

In the first two full weeks of the legislative session we have already taken up many important issues in the Senate but the most important issue of all is our mission to end child poverty in West Virginia.

As many of you know, the child poverty issue is dear to my heart and that is why I am honored to chair the Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty. This committee will meet weekly at the Capitol and also host community forums throughout the state.

With 30 percent of West Virginia children under age six living in poverty, the time for action is long overdue. In West Virginia, more than one in four children are currently in poverty. This is simply unacceptable. We can do better. All of our children deserve a chance to succeed and prosper. We must continue to invest in our children and get to the root of these problems. By reducing child poverty in West Virginia, we lessen the need for drug treatment, medical treatment and prison space in years to come, while at the same time paving the way to a brighter future for our citizens.

The Center on Budget and Policy has teamed up with the state Healthy Kids and Families Coalition to offer aid to our select committee as we go through this process.

This week our committee heard from Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. He believes that investing in early childhood education is the best way to end child poverty in the long run. Boettner believes there is consensus between child care advocates, educators and all stakeholders to break this cycle.

Much of Boettner’s presentation was focused on the idea of expanding early childhood development programs to help cut off the issues we see later in life before they start, like poor health, high numbers of high school dropouts and lack of participation in the workforce.

Senate Bill 391 is a small tool to help in early prevention. The measure simply moves the Division of Early Care and Education and Head Start from the Department of Health and Human Resources to the Department of Education and the Arts. The bill doesn’t do much to change the funding or programs offered, but gives them a higher profile within state government, which often means more attention.

We also heard from Stephen Smith, executive director of West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, who believes a community-based campaign to engage kids, parents, business and labor leaders, ministers, social workers and educators is needed to help solve this crisis.

Health care, family violence prevention and healthy foods in schools are just a few of the things the Our Children, Our Future campaign says could improve the lives of children and families across the state. The campaign is sponsored by WVHKFC.

Dozens of groups representing business and law, child and family, faith, labor, philanthropy, policy and advocacy and sports sectors, as well as lawmakers and statewide supporters, make up the Our Children, Our Future campaign. The group announced its 10-part platform during our meeting last week. It includes:

Health care for 120,000-plus working families. This includes Medicaid expansion up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line for all West Virginians. Medicaid expansion would provide benefits to more than 100,000 working poor parents who make roughly between $6,000 and $26,000 annually. West Virginians would only pay 10 percent of the program and will more than save on emergency room costs.

Protect family violence prevention. The campaign wants to protect and increase funding for efforts to prevent family violence in West Virginia, including the Children’s Trust Fund, child advocacy centers and domestic violence programs. Experts have established a link between poverty and an increase in domestic violence and child maltreatment. Children in poverty have an increased level of vulnerability when it comes to community protective factors that can either prevent abuse or help children begin to heal when abuse has occurred.

Stop child care cuts. Our Children, Our Future will support Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s plan to find long-term solutions to protect child care benefits for working families earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty line. Child care cuts hurt employment and put children at a greater risk, perpetuating the cycle of generational poverty.

Healthy foods in your school. The group’s goal is to promote a healthy foods agenda that includes expanding healthy food programs to at least five new schools or school districts, including school gardens, farm-to-school programs, summer school, after school meals, student advisory councils and soft drink policies. Such policies would cut down obesity and poor health that prevent children from being productive in school.

Bipartisan prison reform to cut waste. It costs about $27,000 a year to incarcerate an adult, about five times the cost of providing quality child care for a child in poverty. Our Children, Our Future has developed a bipartisan commission to reduce incarceration by implementing tested, cost-saving policies to reduce recidivism and increase public safety. Money saved from the prison system would be spent on prevention.

Parent leadership and mutual support. Our Children, Our Future plans to collaborate with local partners on at least five ongoing parent-lead parent education and support programs. Many groups in the state currently are experimenting with similar programs.

Teen mothers. Our Children, Our Future hopes to secure funding for community health centers to provide hours more convenient for student and require PEIA and Medicaid to provide oral and basic health benefits for pregnant women.

Expand health services statewide. The organization would increase community-based health, dental and mental health services to every county in the state through the use of evidence-based models such as expanded school mental health and school-based health centers.

Stop doctors from over-prescribing. Our Children, Our Future hopes to raise awareness and pass state-level legislation to give law enforcement more power to investigate and press charges against doctors who over-prescribe pain medication.

We have scheduled our first committee meeting to discuss community issues on the road. Committee members will travel to Oak Hill in Fayette County today to hear firsthand the stories of the children living in poverty in that area.

In other news, I sponsored a bill last week that creates the West Virginia Homeowners Bill of Rights. Senate Bill 361 seeks to protect homeowners and provide avenues to avoid foreclosure. The economic situation in the state is difficult already and we need to do all that we can to ease the financial burden on our citizens.

Finally, I enjoyed meeting with some youth in government students from our area this week. I always enjoy seeing young people with a genuine interest in the democratic process. I’m reminded of how bright our future is when I meet with these students.

— Sen. John R. Unger II is Majority Leader in the West Virginia Senate. He can be reached at 304-357-7933.

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