Tackling child poverty

Lawmakers learn of locals’ struggles

MARTINSBURG – One of every seven children in Jefferson County live below the official poverty line, according to the U.S. Census. Those figures are even higher in Berkeley and Morgan counties, where around one in five children live in poverty.

[cleeng_content id="263425222" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]Charity organizations, educators and lawmakers met here last week to discuss child poverty in the Eastern Panhandle and throughout the state — and policies meant to address the problem.

Tiffany Lawrence

Tiffany Lawrence

The discussion centered on excerpts of two documentaries. One, a PBS Frontline film entitled “Poor Kids,” which followed the lives of several impoverished American children through the loss of housing, food insecurity and accompanying stress. The second, a forthcoming documentary by John Nakashima, focuses specifically on child poverty in the Mountain State.

Delegate Tiffany Lawrence said about one third of children in West Virginia six years old or younger live below the poverty line, about $400 a week for a family of three. She said that there are substantial, long-lasting impacts associated with allowing such a high level of child poverty to persist.

“Poor kids are five times more likely to have children outside of marriage, are twice as likely to be arrested, and are three times as likely to have severe health problems as kids not living near the poverty line,” she said. “Poor kids also end up earning incomes less than half of [individuals who did not grow up in poverty.]”

“Research in brain development shows that social, emotional and cognitive development is shaped in early childhood and has a lifelong effect,” she added. “It is the best thing that we can do to help our state’s health, welfare and economy in the long run.”

Many child welfare advocates argue that the official poverty line is set too low, however, and that the true rate of child poverty is therefore higher than the official numbers indicate.

Children raised by single mothers are particularly vulnerable to poverty, according to census data. Around one in three children raised by single mothers live in poverty in Jefferson County. Again, the problem is worse in Berkeley and Morgan counties. In Berkeley, two of every five children raised by single mothers are impoverished, and in Morgan more than half live below the poverty line.

Lawrence said, according to reports from the school system, around 75 students currently enrolled in Jefferson County Schools do not have stable, consistent housing.

“It’s just an epidemic,” said Lawrence in a subsequent interview. “West Virginia is often stigmatized because of the high level of poverty here.”

Lawrence pointed to McDowell County – where 72 percent of children live in households with no gainful employment, where the school system has ranked last in the state for a decade and where the prescription overdose death rate is the highest in the nation – as the front line in the battle against the state’s high level of childhood poverty.

Participants in the forum suggested that many poor children are harmed by the perception that impoverished families lack a work ethic and prefer to live on welfare payments instead.

But according to Census data, less than 3 percent of families in West Virginia received welfare – cash payments through the Temporary Aid for Needy Families program – in 2012. In Jefferson County, the figure is now less than 2 percent, though during the depths of the recession in 2010 that number rose to 3.4 percent.

Both Berkeley and Morgan counties have a higher-than-average percentage of families receiving TANF benefits as of 2012. In Berkeley, 3.4 percent of families received welfare, with 4.3 percent in Morgan. In 2010, about one of every 20 families received TANF in those counties.

Lawrence, along with Sen. John Unger, are working with the Healthy Kids and Families coalition to develop policies meant to help combat the high level of child poverty in the state.

Unger said the Feed to Achieve Act – a bill he authored which passed both houses of the Legislature with broad bipartisan support during the last legislative session – provides an example of how alleviating the conditions of poverty can be accomplished. That bill aims to give all W.Va. students the opportunity to have up to two free meals at school, and encourages schools to provide programs to feed children during their time away from school.

He predicts addressing poverty in this way will have a positive impact on educational outcomes in the state.

“You can have the best schools, the best curriculum, the best teachers, the most modern technology, but if that child is sitting there hungry and wondering about their next meal, worried about the home they are going home to – if they are going home to a home – then they are not going to be able to fully learn,” he said.

Unger said addressing the problem is also key to the state’s long-term economic performance.

“The child that is born today will be your work force 20 years from now,” he said.

Lawrence said that the state should make an effort to alleviate the conditions of child poverty itself, rather than waiting on federal programs.

“Instead of being looked at as a state that can’t help itself, I think we could actually take the lead in finding ways to empower local communities,” she said.

Lawrence said the group plans to introduce around 17 initiatives during the February legislative session, with the aim of dealing with the problem of child poverty. These initiatives, she said, include providing more funding to programs aimed at preventing domestic violence, providing more support for the use of drug courts, imposing penalties on physicians who overprescribe painkillers and preventing cuts to subsidized child care programs.

Reforms aiming to reduce child poverty will have to confront substantial nationwide trends that have been pushing economic inequality consistently higher for decades.

According to data compiled by the Federal Reserve, between 1984 and 2011 per capita income grew by some 53 percent, adjusted for inflation. But most of those gains have gone to earners at the top of the income distribution. During that same period the income of a middle-income household grew only 8 percent, even as it became increasingly common for both parents to work.

Of the 34 relatively wealthy countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only Mexico, Chile and Turkey have higher levels of inequality, according to OECD data. The United States has had one of the highest levels of inequality among OECD countries for as long as it has compiled these statistics, and inequality has increased steadily and significantly since at least the 1970s, though it has also increased in many other countries.

A wide variety of economic studies show that the United States not only has a much higher level of economic inequality than most other developed countries but also has a lower level of economic mobility. American children who are born into poor families have a higher chance of remaining poor than do Canadian, Australian or German children, and a much higher change of remaining poor than do Finnish, Norwegian, or Danish children.

The area surrounding Jefferson County, according to data from a joint Harvard-Berkeley study, has a level of social mobility that is close to the national average. The majority of children born into families that are among the bottom 20 percent of income earners will themselves be in the bottom 40 percent of income earners at age 30. Less than 10 percent will rise into the top fifth of income earners.

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