By Jessica Farrish
Fewer than 2 percent of West Virginia residents currently receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the leader of a non-profit group aimed at improving the health and well-being of West Virginia children reported Wednesday, but poverty is still plaguing an increasingly elevated percentage of the population.
“Poverty isn’t something that is at arm’s length now,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. “If you look at the self-sustainability level — that is, (families who earn) enough to make a living, sending your kids to school, all the basics, which is actually higher than the poverty level — 52 percent of West Virginia families are below the self-sustainability level.”
Smith was a featured speaker at Our Children, Our Future, a workshop hosted Wednesday at the Dream Center in Beckley.
The aim was to mobilize communities to fight child poverty and was attended by representatives of state churches, agencies and non-profit organizations.
Various speakers offered strategies for communities to define grassroots strategies in order to fight poverty on state and local levels.
According to Stephanie Tyree, director of community engagement and policy for West Virginia Community Development Hubb, a similar event will be held in the northern part of the state for around 140 organizations at a later date.
In late September, both groups will come together to discuss the issues impacting communities in poverty.
Tyree pointed out that poverty is influenced by and influences many other challenges facing society, including affordable housing, childhood obesity, teen pregnancy, juvenile justice, substance abuse and minimum wage.
“The way I think about poverty is like a tangled web where it spreads out to all these other problems,” she explained.
“That’s what we’re trying to do today, is to bring together the leaders and experts on all of the different, individual coordinators from those agencies and think about how we can strategize.”
Raleigh County Solid Waste Authority Marketing Director Sherrie Hunter said addressing childhood poverty is vital for a community to thrive.
“Anything that we can do as a collective group to improve our communities and partner with one another to lift up our communities is a good thing,” she said.
Smith said family poverty wears many faces in West Virginia when the numbers of those who work below the level of self-sustainability are considered.
“People think of poverty as that one awful parent who is lazy,” he said. “That is not what poverty is in West Virginia right now.
“It’s people who are unemployed, underemployed, working two jobs just to make ends meet but making $8 an hour and don’t have enough money to make ends meet,” he said. “There’s a popular myth that there are huge piles of people who are just relying on government assistance, just waiting to cash that check, and it’s not true.”
In his remarks, Smith told the crowd that it’s harder to be a kid and to be poor now than it was 40 years ago.
“We’ve heard people say, ‘I grew up poor, but it was different back then,’” Smith stated. “I heard this, and I thought ... they were being nostalgic about a time gone by.
“It turns out, they were right.”
Although West Virginia leads the nation in those who have attained higher levels of education over the past 40 years, Smith said, jobs pay less, inflation has led to higher prices, the job market is more competitive and medical care and child care are more expensive.
That’s why we have this abominable and embarrassing rise in child poverty in the state,” he said.
He attributed lower church and union participation and the absence of many extended family members living in close proximity to children as contributing factors to childhood poverty.
Incarceration, substance abuse and divorce also impact family financial situations.
Smith said “having the courage to ask for help” in initiatives is the first step in solving child poverty. He urged participants to have face-to-face, one-on-one meetings with their legislators and other leaders to share goals and hear other viewpoints.
In an interview, Smith said legislation that impacts poor families is usually passed with little or no input from those who will be impacted by it.
He added that policies should reflect the interests of those impacted.
“I want to have a state where families and communities define their own destinies,” he said. “When we don’t stick up for ourselves, governments, companies, other people come in and make decisions for us.
“In a democracy, the fun part is that if you get enough people power, you can do anything,” he added. “A good start would be that nothing in the state happens that affects poor kids and families without poor kids and families being onboard for that.”
United Way of Southern West Virginia Executive Director Margaret Ann O’Neal also attended the symposium.
“The importance of something like a policy workshop is that we identify loopholes or laws that are hand-tying to service providers,” she said. “They have to be fixed, and people like us have to be trained in how to approach government agencies, legislators and elected officials in order to do that.”
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