Senator seeking committee on child poverty in West Virginia
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - State Sen. John Unger said action on child poverty in West Virginia is "long overdue," and he wants the Senate to come up with new ways of tackling the issue.
Unger, D-Berkeley, plans to introduce a resolution next month that would create a select committee on child poverty.
"With thirty percent of West Virginia children under age six living in poverty, the time for action is long overdue," Unger said in a statement.
The 11-member committee would "focus our efforts to meet our children's basic needs and expand their opportunities to reach their full potential," Unger said.
It would remain in place for at least two years and include the chairmen of the Senate's finance, judiciary, education, health and agriculture and rural development committees. Senate President Jeff Kessler would appoint the remaining members.
Unger told the Daily Mail the committee would bring senate leaders together to examine child poverty and its effects on other issues, including education, school nutrition health insurance, mental health services and prison overcrowding.
"I want us to come up with new ideas and new ways of approaching it," he said.
State law requires senators to vote on any new committee with more than five members. If passed, Unger's resolution also would allow the committee to meet outside the regular legislative session, during interim sessions throughout the year and also in hearings held around the state. He said those hearings would allow lawmakers to hear testimonies and ideas from people around the state.
Unger said he has little doubt the state senate will pass the resolution and establish the committee.
"I can't imagine it not passing," he said. "Everyone I've talked with, no one's ever been negative."
While Unger has been interested in studying child poverty for some time, he said a visit to an elementary school in his district galvanized him into action.
Just before Christmas, teachers invited Unger to speak to a third-grade classroom at Berkeley Heights Elementary in Martinsburg.
He said he often visits schools to talk about how state government works. To hold students' attention, Unger plays a game where all the students get to be senators, propose bills and then vote for them into law.
"I said 'All right, all of you are senators now. What would be one thing you would change in the school if you could?' " Unger said.
One Berkeley Heights third-grader proposed a longer recess. Unger wrote the suggestion on the board.
"All right, that's a bill," he told students.
Students then suggested another bill that would create an extra lunch period. Unger then asked students to explain why they would want an extra lunch. A boy spoke up.
"He said, 'That way I can eat an extra lunch before I go home so I won't have to eat mommy and daddy's food, so they'll have enough for my brother,' " Unger remembered.
Unger asked how many students were in similar situations, and said nearly every one raised their hand.
"An extra lunch beat out an extra recess," he said. "If we don't tackle this issue and a child like that goes hungry, nothing else matters. All these other debates, if we can't provide the opportunities for that child to make sure they have the necessities needed to grow . . . any other activity means nothing."
Unger said helping children in poverty would benefit the whole state.
"By investing in children, you invest into the whole community and lift the whole community up," he said.