Helping Poor Children in W.Va.

State Sen. John Unger wants to do something about poor children in West Virginia. So, he’s proposing what seems logical, to a politician, at least: Unger, D-Berkeley, wants to form a legislative select committee on child poverty.

“I want us to come up with new ideas,” Unger stressed.

Well, that would be good. Because we know a lot about poverty. Specifically, we know what the nation has been attempting to do about it for half a century hasn’t worked.

Modern anti-poverty campaigns by government began during the 1960s. In 1970, the Census Bureau estimated 12.6 percent of Americans were living in households with incomes below the poverty level.

Care to guess what the number was in 2011? How about 15 percent? And don’t blame the current economy for all that. During the past 40 years the rate never has dropped more than about one percentage point under the 1970 level, even during boom times.

Here in West Virginia, we tend to be a couple of points above the national average. In 1980, the earliest year for which the Census Bureau posts state data, the poverty rate here was 15.2 percent. It’s 17.5 percent now.

So the hundreds of billions of dollars Americans have spent to fight poverty have treated symptoms, not causes.

What’s especially disturbing, as Unger recognizes, is that the poverty rate for children (those under 18 years of age) is substantially higher than for the population as a whole.

In 2011, about 26 percent of Mountain State children lived in households with incomes below the federally designated poverty level, according to the Kids Count organization.

Another outfit, the National Center for Children in Poverty, makes the real problem crystal clear. Look at some of the numbers for West Virginia:

  • Seventy-four percent of the state’s children in poverty live in homes where either no one has a job or the best they can do is part-time or part-year employment. Jobs matter.
  • Sixty-three percent of children in poverty are from households where no one has earned a high school diploma. Education matters – or, to be more precise, deciding to get an education matters.
  • Sixty percent of poor children live in single-parent homes. Twelve percent don’t live with either of their parents. Marriage matters – or, again, to be more precise, taking responsibility for your children matters.
  • Where in West Virginia you live makes a difference. In 2011, the percentage of children in poverty in the state’s First Congressional District – northern and central counties – was 24. In the Third District, the southern counties, it was 27 percent.

It’s going to get worse in the southern coalfields, by the way, as the EPA-driven shift away from coal to produce electricity closes more mines.

We don’t really need another commission, committee or campaign. We already know a lot about why some people are poor and others aren’t.

And we know there are ways we can help at least some of those children.

For starters, we can insist their parents take responsibility for their offspring. We can tell more moms and dads that if they don’t send their children to school, they may go to jail.

We can tell deadbeat parents that if they walk away from their children, we’ll track them down and won’t listen to any sob stories about how they can’t afford to pay child support. If they decide, as some do, to stop working rather than pay child support, we can cut off all public assistance to them.

We can help low-income parents who want to work by not reducing the day-care assistance we provide them. We can do more to help adults who, now regretting they dropped out of school, want to get GEDs.

Instead of finding new ways to tax job creators while insisting government is doing them a favor (remember “You didn’t built that”?), we can be partners with them in the only anti-poverty campaign that really works – growing the private-sector economy.

We already know effective ways to reduce poverty in our state and nation. The question Unger should be asking is why we don’t use them.

Myer can be reached via e-mail at myer@theintelligencer.net.