By C.V. Moore
OAK HILL —
The time has come for West Virginians to face the crisis of child poverty in their communities, according to a statewide coalition that advocates for youth. They hope a community planning meeting in Oak Hill next week will build momentum for change.
Organizers are asking families, service organizations and leaders from the faith, labor, education and business communities to come out and offer their input on the effects of child poverty in the region and plan for the future.
The statewide “Our Children, Our Future” campaign to end child poverty, sponsored by the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition and 126 partner organizations, has so far held almost 50 community meetings across the state to hear what citizens have to say.
“We think child poverty weaves through many of the problems in our state. To really build a better future for the state, you have to address this huge problem that’s affecting a third of our kids,” said Stephanie Tyree of the West Virginia Community Development Hub, a campaign partner that’s hosting the Oak Hill meeting.
The latest numbers show that 30 percent of children 5 and under grow up in poverty in West Virginia and half of the kids in school qualify for free or reduced lunch, said Tyree.
“It used to be that with most jobs, if you worked hard, you’d make enough to support your family, and that’s not true anymore for an increasingly large segment of our population,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Healthy Kids and Families Coalition.
"One of the things that became clear in these community meetings is that poverty is not something that happens to everybody else. (...) It’s not something that’s happening to those people who aren’t working hard enough, it’s hitting huge numbers of people.”
For 14 years, the West Virginia Health Kids and Families Coalition has focused on advocating for the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which ensures health care for children in poverty.
But when their board got together a year ago to do some reflection, they realized that even though poor kids now have health insurance, they are worse off in other ways than when the program began. More parents are incarcerated, addicted and under-employed. The child poverty rate is bad and getting worse.
They also agreed that the political will to make change simply wasn’t there. So they decided to put their shoulder to the wheel and start building that political momentum themselves.
“Imagine for a moment if the most vulnerable kids in the state had the political clout that the coal industry does. We’d live in a different state with different politics and different support systems for kids and families. But that takes time to build and that take grassroots community organizing,” said Smith.
They began with communities and decided to work their way up the ladder to lawmakers.
“If there is one thing I’ve learned from this it’s that the people closest to the issue — the families who are struggling, the religious leaders who are helping their parishioners, the kids — they are the ones who are most creative and are already doing the most innovative and important work,” Smith added.
Step one was to set up community meetings across the state to come up with a political platform from which to build.
Voted on by participants, the platform will soon be released. The No. 1 one issue that came up is proposed cuts to child care that would cut off support from 1,400 families statewide.
Smith said a lot of the other issues came down to supporting and rewarding working families, rather than punishing them.
Step two involves discussing those issues with the public, asking how they are affecting people and whether any additional local issues need to be included. That’s what next week’s meeting in Oak Hill is all about. It’s a chance to offer further input before the platform is taken to decision makers.
The coalition will hold a forum in the spring, asking legislators to support issues that affect the state’s children.
Smith said no one involved in the campaign is fooling themselves into thinking that the issue has an easy fix.
“We’re asking people to sign an and address the crisis over years and decades to come, because it’s going to take that long,” he said.
Though it may feel like an overwhelming problem to tackle, Smith said the alternative is worse.
“The reason we are in the mess that we’re in is because not enough of us are stepping forward,” he said. “What we have now is what happens when people remove themselves from the political process and feel like it’s too much. (...) We can all do better, but we’ve got to actually do it.”
The Fayette County community planning meeting for The Campaign to End Child Poverty will be held Jan. 30 at noon at the Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS) Historic Oak Hill School at 140 School St., Oak Hill.
“We’re all aware of the problem, and I think most people have comments and solutions to it that they’d like to see worked on,” said Tyree. “I’d really like this meeting to be a space where it’s a diverse mix of people who are all interested in this idea and working on it together.”
Lunch will be provided and anyone from the community is welcome. Organizers are requesting that interested participants RSVP as soon as possible so enough food can be provided. Contact Tyree at email@example.com or call 304-465-5447.
Those who can’t make it to the meeting can still be involved in the campaign. A forum on child poverty will be held in the spring.
For more information or to get involved, contact the West Virginia Community Development Hub at 304-465-5447; or the Healthy Kids Healthy Families Coalition at wvhealthykids.org or 304-610-6512.
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org