Last Thursday evening, the Pocahontas County Family Resource Network hosted a forum at the Marlinton Municipal Building to discuss child poverty issues. Among the attendees were Delegate Denise Campbell and Delegate Bill Hartman.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 18 percent of West Virginia residents live in poverty. The poverty rate is three points higher in The Mountain State than the rest of the country. An even more troubling statistic comes from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy (WVCBP), which reported that 25.8 percent of West Virginia children live in poverty – the 13th worst rate in the nation.
Even more alarming, child poverty in West Virginia is increasing.
“Child poverty has been a systemic problem in the Mountain State for over five decades,” a February 2013 WVCBP report reads. “While the poverty rate for seniors and working-age adults has declined since 1969, the child poverty rate has grown. In 1969, the share of children under 18 in poverty was 19.1 percent. Today, it has grown to 23.2 percent. Meanwhile, the poverty rate for seniors has declined from nearly 40 percent in 1969 to just 10 percent today.”
LeeAnn Shreve, Eastern Regional Organizer with WV Healthy Kids and Families, was the guest speaker at the forum. Shreve gave a presentation on the Our Children Our Future (OCOF) campaign. OCOF is an alliance of 177 organizations, churches, schools, chambers of commerce, unions, legislators, and other groups seeking to end child poverty in West Virginia. OCOF works primarily on policy development, policy advocacy, leadership development and voter turnout.
“The reason we do this is because we want to live in a state in which every kid has a fair shot,” said Shreve. “We want all kids to have the same chances. We fight for the future of our state and we really truly believe that our children are that future. We don’t work for kids and families – we are kids and families.”
Shreve said OCOF unifies the efforts of various groups with the same goals.
“What’s really interesting is that we are people who bring together groups that usually don’t work together,” she said. “Catholic Charities and [pro-choice group] WV Free are perfect examples. They are so far apart on the spectrum of what they do, but they come together to work on issues for children. They put those differences aside and fight for issues they feel they agree on.”
The organizer said the group has helped to achieve several legislative victories, including expanded Medicaid to 120,000 families, an increase in the state minimum wage, restored child care benefits for 1,400 working families, restored child abuse prevention funding, a reversal of cuts to Head Start, and a move to improve physical activity in schools.
Shreve discussed the plight of foster children in West Virginia and a proposed Foster Kids Bill of Rights.
“The number of children in foster care in West Virginia is 4,562,” she said. “The average number of different foster care placements that children experience is three. The percent of children placed in facilities rather than a family foster home environment is right around 35 percent. How are they going to know, when they get out of that facility, how to be a functioning family member. They’re going to be behind. It’s no wonder they have difficulties.”
Shereve said children – usually older children – are assigned to group homes when there is no available foster family. Hartman said the Mountain School in Elkins is an example of a group home for children with behavioral issues.
“We had a collection of money to buy luggage for the foster children,” Hartman said.
“Many of these kids have nothing but a black trash bag to carry around their belongings, so the gift of a suitcase is very important,” said Shreve.
Shreve cited studies that show a seven dollar return on every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood programs.
Forum attendees organized into small groups to discuss a variety of policy initiatives. During the discussion, Hartman said family problems are the root cause of many of the state’s problems.
“I’ve said it several times and I’m very open about it – the dysfunctional family is the cause of 75 percent of the problems that we have,” he said. “I’m not sure that you can write a statute that can solve that totally. It’s a bigger problem than the West Virginia Legislature.”
The Pocahontas Times asked Campbell and Hartman what they believed to be the primary causes of child poverty. Both delegates placed the blame squarely on the workforce.
“A lot of it is just motivation,” said Hartman. “We’ve been doing this listening tour around the state. The basic comment by everybody, whether it’s a restaurant or a manufacturing firm, or a high-tech firm, is that we can’t find qualified employees. When we do find one that’s qualified, then they fail the blood test. One guy from the drilling industry said, ‘we can’t get people to work after dark.’ And those people make $70,000 and $80,000 and $90,000 a year. But they don’t want to work after five o’clock.”
“It’s true – I know from my full-time job,” said Campbell. “My dad taught me, ‘whatever job someone’s willing to give you, you take it and say thank you and you work and you don’t call off and you’re there and you’re loyal because you’re thankful that you have a job. They come in and say, ‘I don’t want to work weekends, I don’t want to work holidays, I don’t want to work nights, I want to work Monday through Friday, eight to four, nine to five, have all my holidays off and get six weeks of vacation and be able to take a three-month sabbatical if I want.’ I mean – what happened to working? The definition of work is a whole lot different than what we all had.”
“A lack of self-esteem also,” said Hartman. “People get into that rut, if you will, and don’t think they can do anything.
Shreve distributed literature from the Department of Health and Human Resources, dispelling common myths about welfare. An excerpt of the handout reads:
Myth #1: People have more children so they can get more money. There is no significant monetary incentive for mothers to continue to have children when they are receiving benefits. In West Virginia, the TANF [Temporary Assistance to Needy Families] is $39 a month for each new child. There is no increase after the total household size reaches eight. The average TANF recipient family is made up of four people and receives $384 a month in cash assistance to cover living expenses such as utilities, clothing, transportation, toiletries, etc.
Myth #2: People who are “on welfare” are lazy and do not want to work. Data indicate that many people apply for and become eligible for welfare because of circumstances beyond their control. Many have experienced layoffs due to the economy, are unable to work due to health problems or have experienced a divorce or death of the primary bread winner. In order to receive TANF benefits, recipients must have a child in the home, sign a personal responsibility contract and participate in work and/or educational activities.
Myth #3: Welfare is a lifestyle and people stay on it for life. Federal regulations limit receipt of TANF benefits to a lifetime maximum of 60 months, regardless of the state where the recipient lives. In West Virginia, when a case is closed before a 60-month limit has been reached, only about nine percent of cases are re-opened.
For more information on the Our Children Our Future project, see ocofwv.org.