According to the Census Bureau’s official poverty estimates, West Virginia saw its child poverty rate increase from 20.7 percent to 25.0 percent between 2021 and 2022, the only state to see an increase by the official measure (along with Puerto Rico). In 2022, West Virginia’s child poverty rate was the second highest among the 50 states, with 86,400 children living in poverty. Nationally, child poverty more than doubled when using the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), a metric that is considered more nuanced as it takes into consideration tax credits and housing and food assistance along with cost-of-living. While the spike in Supplemental Child Poverty can be attributed to Congress’ failure to extend pandemic-era anti-poverty programs, the increase in official child poverty means something more is amiss for West Virginia children.
Among the full population of adults and children, West Virginia’s official poverty rate was 17.9 percent, the third highest rate of the 50 states, with 308,825 West Virginians living in poverty. Black (30.7 percent) and Latino (22.4 percent) West Virginians were more likely to experience poverty.
The official poverty measure doesn’t account for tax credits, food assistance, and other social safety net policies. The SPM does, although it is not available at the state level.
Nationally the SPM showed child poverty more than doubling in 2022 from an historic low of 5.2 percent in 2021 to 12.4 percent in 2022, erasing all of the record gains made in reducing child poverty over the previous two years.
The increase in hardship as shown via the SPM was a result of Congress’ failure to extend pandemic relief efforts that boosted household incomes and economic security, such as the expanded Child Tax Credit. If Congress had continued the American Rescue Plan’s Child Tax Credit increase in 2022, about 3 million additional children would have been kept out of poverty.
The 2021 expansion of the CTC temporarily fixed a flaw in the tax code that bars families with low incomes from receiving the full credit while allowing married couples making up to $400,000 to receive the full amount. Since the expiration of the Child Tax Credit expansion at the end of 2021, the credit has reverted to a maximum of $2,000 per child and no longer is fully available to all low-income children. Approximately 19 million children live in families whose incomes are too low to qualify for the full credit.
Another major factor in the increase in the supplemental poverty measure in 2022 was the expiration of pandemic stimulus payments, known as Economic Impact Payments, which were meant to be temporary. The Rescue Plan’s stimulus payments provided $1,400 per person and kept a similar number of children above the poverty line in 2021 as the Child Tax Credit expansion.
Again, West Virginia’s increase in child poverty goes beyond the expiration of pandemic-era programs, which isn’t captured in the official measure that could be due, in part, to the slowing of state economic growth in 2022, with West Virginia ranking 49th in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth over the year.
Policy choices that reduce poverty — or allow poverty to surge — matter. When low-income families receive more income assistance, babies are more likely to be born at healthy birthweights, elementary school reading and math scores tend to rise, and children grow up with higher earnings and better health outcomes.
Enacting a state-level Child Tax Credit should be a top tax policy priority in the state, but policymakers chose expensive income tax cuts that overwhelmingly favor the wealthy in West Virginia earlier this year. Reversing those income tax cuts and instead enacting a generous child tax credit would be a policy choice that reduces child poverty rather than ignoring it.
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