Today, nearly one in three young children (under age 6) in West Virginia lives in poverty. For a family of four that means living on a income of about $20,000 a year in 2012. Child poverty is a persistent and growing problem in West Virginia. That’s why it’s so important that State Senate Majority Leader John Unger announced his intention of creating a select committee on child poverty.
As the chart below illustrates, the share of West Virginia children under the age of 18 in poverty has grown over the last several decades while the poverty rate for seniors has dramatically declined and the overall poverty rate has slightly dropped.
There are numerous factors for why child poverty has increased nationally over the last several decades. According to scholars Mary Corcoran and Ajay Chaudry, the four largest factors include slower and more turbulent economic growth, increase in the number of single moms, immigration, and most importantly income and wage stagnation. This last one would certainly be a driving factor in West Virginia since the early 80s. For example, real hourly wages have stagnated or declined for most middle-class workers in West Virginia from 1979 to 2011.
One reason the poverty rate for seniors has declined dramatically is the federal investments that have been made to reduce poverty among this group. According to a 2012 analysis by the Urban Institute, public spending (federal, state and local) per child was $11,822, compared to $26,355 per senior in 2008. The growth in public spending for seniors has been primarily in Social Security and the establishment of programs like Medicare that provides health insurance to those over age 65.
While it would be much easier to reduce child poverty with action at the federal level, states can and are playing an instrumental role. Of the $11,822 in per child spending, approximately 68 percent or $8,000 came from state and local governments whereas 97 percent of the $26,355 per senior spending came from the federal government.
Not only can states create new policies and build on existing programs, but they can create momentum at the federal level for change. As I remind my state and local government class each Thursday night, many of the important federal programs, laws, and regulations that we cherish happened first at the state level – such as the minimum wage, a woman’s right to vote, universal health care, and abolition of slavery.
For West Virginia to reduce poverty, policymakers will need to focus on making investments in children instead of continuing their drive toward austerity with inefficient tax cuts and spending cuts. As Nobel Laureate James Heckman noted, “Investments in high-quality early education programs have the highest rate of return of any social investment” we can make. It is time we start making them.
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