By Mannix Porterfield
Is West Virginia’s welfare system so attractive to young girls that it inspires them to have babies as a means of getting away from home and resettled in their own apartments?
Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, raised that question Wednesday on the first meeting of the newly-founded Select Committee on Children and Poverty.
Quoting school counselors, Prezioso told Margie Hale, executive director of West Virginia Kids Count, that he was informed of this tack by teenagers to get pregnant because the system sets them up in apartments.
“A lot of times, those apartments turn into places where teenagers meet and drugs are prevalent,” Prezioso said.
“That led me to believe we incentivize them to become pregnant to get out of their households and into apartments.”
Hale downplayed the observation, saying she thinks most pregnant teens are looking at their future.
“It’s a stretch for me to imagine a teen saying, ‘I’m going to have sex so I can have a baby,’” she said.
“If you don’t think that’s reality —” Prezioso began.
“I’m sure it’s true, but I don’t believe the solution is removing support,” Hale said.
In fact, she said, one solution is to work with young girls with an emphasis on sex education.
Sen. Larry Edgell, D-Wetzel, quoted another counselor as saying a girl came into his office pregnant for a third time. She was 13.
The pregnancies weren’t carried to term, he added.
Hale said the teen pregnancy rate has been a roller-coaster within the past dozen years, but the encouraging aspect is that West Virginia has been under the national average.
A chart provided by Kids Count showed that one in eight infants born in West Virginia has a teenage mother.
Senate Health and Human Resources Chairman Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a physician, said the committee needs to examine the impact of teenagers giving birth.
“We really need to look at that and pay close attention,” he said.
Children of unwed teen mothers have a staggering 78 percent dropout rate, compared to 9 percent for legitimate births, he said.
“That not only impacts society and children then, but potentially introduces into the pipeline a future of high costs for people who probably would not be paying taxes,” Stollings said.
Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, who persuaded the Senate on opening day to create the special committee, said it would not only meet once a week during the session, but also during the interims, and likely will hit the road to go outside Charleston.
In fact, one such meeting, as yet unscheduled, is being planned in the 10th District, represented by Sens. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, and Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier.
“The focus of this committee is not on special interest groups,” Unger said.
“The focus is on the children.”