The Times West Virginian

July 31, 2013

Ending cycle of poverty in W.Va. remains critical fight

Times West Virginian

— It affects one in three children in West Virginia.

It costs the state $3.9 billion.

It’s an issue that continues to grow.

As Stephen Smith, director of West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, said, “It’s affecting all of us in one way or another.”

The “it” is poverty.

And a group of social agencies and concerned citizens is doing something about it.

But it won’t be a simple task. As Smith pointed out, 48 percent of West Virginians live below self-sustainability. That means they don’t make enough money to get by without government help. And it means nearly half the state is working or is in and out of jobs, yet still doesn’t make enough to get by.

Smith called the figure “shocking.” As director of West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, a statewide child health and child poverty advocacy group, he sees the issue firsthand.

“There is a very powerful myth that poverty is something that afflicts only a minority of us, and that those people deserve it,” Smith said. “What we’ve learned over and over from community meetings and statistics is that frighteningly living at or near the poverty line is becoming the norm for West Virginians.”

That’s where “Our Children, Our Future: The Campaign to End Child Poverty” comes in. The coalition is planning its strategies for next year, all with the goal of improving the health of children and families in West Virginia.

Again, the issue is one that affects each of us.

As Smith pointed out, the cycle of poverty creates a ripple effect in the state’s economy. When good-paying jobs are plentiful, people spend their money and the economy benefits. But when times get tight, people give up what they think are nonessentials — things like eating out or going on shopping sprees — and the whole economy suffers.

And sadly, the issue is not one that’s new in the Mountain State.

“About 40 years ago, there was an onslaught on families in West Virginia,” Smith said. “Compared to then, now there are fewer jobs per capita. They pay less, are harder to get and much, much harder to keep. It’s become insanely harder to find and keep a job. Meanwhile, the cost of things has gone up and support systems (family, church, unions) have spread out and become dispersed.”

As groups like the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition work to bring children and families out of poverty, we are encouraged by Smith’s simple but heartfelt promise: “We’re trying to figure out in small ways and big ways how to address this problem. We are 100 percent serious and unrelenting when it comes to working on things where we can actually make a difference.”

Poverty is clearly a big issue in West Virginia, and it’s one that is unlikely to disappear without a fight.

But having people who are committed to making a difference goes a long way toward winning the battle.