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Child poverty in W.Va. a persistent problem, report says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While West Virginia has reduced the number of seniors living in poverty, child poverty is a growing problem, according to a report released by two organizations Tuesday.

The state's senior poverty rate fell from 39.2 percent in 1969 to just more than 10 percent today, the report stated. It was released by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. 

West Virginia's child poverty rate, though, has grown from 19.1 percent in 1969 to more than 23 percent today, according to the report, "Child Poverty in West Virginia: A Growing and Persistent Problem."

"In the last 40 years we have slashed senior poverty by 75 percent," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. "It wasn't inevitable that seniors had to live in poverty, nor is in inevitable that kids have to live in poverty.

"But it's going to take what it took seniors, which was coordinated, long-term, long-range push of political will," Smith said.

The report was released at the "Worth Our Care" symposium at the Charleston Marriott on Tuesday.

About one in three West Virginia children under age 6 live in poverty today, according to the report.

Children with parents who didn't graduate high school, those with single mothers, African Americans and those with unemployed parents are more likely to live in poverty, the report says.

About half of families with single mothers in the state live below the federal poverty line and more than 30 percent of single-dad families live in poverty, according to the report.

"That to me is like a crisis right there," Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said of the single-mother statistic. "That was one of the statistics that kind of threw my hair back."

Boettner added that marriage is not a solution in and of itself but that family stability is a factor.

The income that a two-parent household can generate for children is also important, Smith said.

"One job used to be enough," Smith said. "In 1970, one job was $20 an hour and now one job is, depending on how you calculate it, somewhere between $8.50 and $15 an hour.

"One parent, one job might have done it 40 years ago," he said. "It doesn't now."

At one in four children in poverty in 2011, West Virginia had the 13th-highest poverty rate in the nation.

The annual cost of child poverty in West Virginia is $3.9 billion, according to the report.

Investing in children pays off, according to the report. For every dollar invested in early childhood development, $7 is saved by preventing crime, unemployment and severe health-care costs, the report states.

Recommendations for fixing child poverty will be presented to the Legislature at Kids and Families Day on Feb. 26 and at 12 community forums across the state.

Sen. John Unger, chairman of the Legislature's new select committee on child poverty, said solving childhood poverty would reduce prison overcrowding, lessen the state's substance abuse problem and improve student achievement.

"We continue to build prisons, reform education and try to find treatment for substance abuse, but if we continue to do what we've always done, we're going to get what we've always gotten. We've got to get to the root," Unger said while speaking during the Marriott symposium.

The select committee will meet weekly at the state Capitol and then host community forums throughout the state, Unger said.

The entire report is available here: http://www.wvpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/ChildPoverty_2.19.131.pdf

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240. 


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