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Stephen Smith: Family disintegration is indeed cruel

West Virginia has a problem. We have the lowest labor participation rate in the country, as well as troubling numbers of families in crisis - teen births, high divorce rates, rising child poverty rates.

Yesterday, the Daily Mail blamed this crisis of "family disintegration" on the War on Poverty's social programs, which often reduce a woman's benefits, effectively punishing her for being married or for working.

There is no doubt that family disintegration is a cruel bedfellow to rising poverty rates. Only 38 percent of poor kids have married parents, compared to 80 percent of kids above the poverty line.

But we must look deeper than the War on Poverty to find the solutions to help us strengthen families and raise kids out of poverty.

The main reason why families are poor and struggling is that the middle class is eroding.

It used to be that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could earn enough money to cover the basics: food, housing, health care, child care and so on.

But over the last generation, real wages have fallen precipitously, while real costs have risen - especially for health care and housing.

Americans are working harder, and more productively, than ever before - but they are no longer getting paid enough to take care of their families.  At the end of the month, the household budget just doesn't add up.

But that's not the only thing that's changed.

The experience of poverty is very different, and much tougher, than it was a generation ago - because not only has our pay been cut, but our informal support systems have eroded.

We used to have a church, a union, an extended family, and a stable group of co-workers to rely on when the going got tough.

No longer.  Our lives and our connections are more transitory.

Church participation has fallen. The union rate in West Virginia is 13 percent; down from 38 percent a generation ago. Families are more scattered than ever.

And while the average American worker used to hold two or three jobs in her lifetime; estimates predict that my year-old son is expected to have 30 different jobs in his career.

How loyal will any of those 30 companies be to him?  

I am proud to participate in a community organizing campaign called Our Children, Our Future: The Campaign to End Child Poverty.

We've been traveling the state, holding 47 community meetings with parents and religious leaders, unions and business folks - to try and find out what can be done.

One of the most popular issues - among both rich business leaders and poor parents - is the need to reform our benefits structure so that families are no longer punished for staying together or working hard for that promotion.

That may take us a couple years to reform, but we must do it - starting with the implementation of a state Earned Income Tax Credit that rewards work.  

In the meantime, there are a few opportunities coming up now that would make a difference.

First, if the governor signs West Virginia up for Medicaid expansion, we will be rewarding 100,000+ hard-working families who right now make too much money to qualify for Medicaid.

Second, on Jan. 1 the governor postponed child care cuts that would have forced 1,400 families to choose between quitting their jobs (so they could qualify for the benefits) or leaving their kids in sub-standard care.

This is the year to find a long-term funding source for these child care programs that keep families working.

More than anything, the most viable solutions will not come from government, but from each of us.

There's no substitute for a pastor expanding his ministry to the working families in their congregations and communities.

There's no substitute for an employer raising wages in order to have a healthier, more reliable, and more loyal workforce.

And there's no substitute for everyday citizens getting together to support one another and make their voices heard.  Will you join us?

Stephen Smith is director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition.  


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