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Report says high child poverty rate is obstacle

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Without its persistently high rate of child poverty, West Virginia could reduce other nagging societal problems like the rates of divorce, obesity, addiction and teen pregnancy.

That's the premise of a new report from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. That report, released Tuesday, details the state's "growing and persistent" problem with child poverty -- an issue that has plagued West Virginia for generations.

"When people aren't living in poverty, they aren't committing as many crimes, they're eating healthier," said Stephen Smith, executive director at the Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. "They do better."

According to the report, more than a quarter of West Virginia children live below the poverty line; another quarter live on the edge of that line and are termed "low income." More than 10 percent are in "deep" poverty -- for a family of four that means living on less than $11,500 a year.

"That's not a minor thing; that's not a little sporadic issue here and there," Smith said. "It affects everybody."

The report places the immediate and long-term costs of child poverty in West Virginia at about $3.9 billion. National estimates are as much as $500 billion.

Next Tuesday, the authors of the report will announce a platform for the current legislative session, including increased participation in federal programs that provide support for impoverished families and a palette of new policies. Among other things, they want to establish a State Earned Income Tax Credit, modeled after the federal credit that provides a tax benefit to low-income, working families.

For context and inspiration, the report cites West Virginia's poverty rate among seniors two generations ago: 40 percent of seniors were in poverty in 1964.

"Years ago, people said that it was inevitable that seniors are going to be in poverty," Smith said.  "Tell that to my grandparents now who are out there and not living in poverty."

Today, the poverty rate among West Virginia's seniors is 10 percent. The poverty rate among working age West Virginians also has declined in the last 50 years.

But the child poverty rate has remained stubbornly high, growing gradually from 19 percent in 1969 to more than 23 percent today.

And according to the report, 21 of West Virginia's 55 counties have been persistently poor over the last four decades -- in keeping with national trends that show that persistent poverty is largely a "rural phenomenon."

The report ties the high concentration of poverty in those regions to "physical isolation, exploitation of natural resources and labor, fewer assets and economic opportunities and an overall lack of human and social capital."

Contact writer Shay Maunz at or 304-348-4886.


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