Loretta Young, a chairperson of the Poor People’s Campaign in West Virginia, says her group wants “to change the moral narrative in this country” – and given the economic conditions on the most basic levels of day-to-day, hand-to-mouth survival that we see here throughout the southern reaches of West Virginia, such a change in the outcomes of our story cannot come soon enough.
Statistics, provided by organizers of the “Hunger Summit” held Thursday evening at the Lewisburg United Methodist Church and corroborated by the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, show that 336,300 West Virginians live in poverty, and most of those poor souls face some measure of food insecurity.
As Gov. Jim Justice and state lawmakers start drawing up a roadmap for the legislative session ahead, there is no shortage of pressing issues. But advancing policies that invest in the people of this state has to be atop the list.
The 2017 poverty rate of 19.1 percent is embarrassing – about one in five people – up 1.2 percentage points from the year prior, 5.7 percentage points higher than the national average and the 4th highest in the country. More damning, the rate worsens across telltale demographics: the child poverty rate checks in at a jaw-dropping 25.5 percent with an estimated 91,734 children living in poverty; the poverty rate for African Americans is 31.7 percent; the poverty rate for women is 20.9 percent, 3.7 percentage points higher than that of men.
In Greenbrier County, home to our governor and often perceived as one of the state’s more affluent regions, the overall poverty rate is 22 percent, rising to 35 percent for families with a female head of household, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. And 65 percent of the county’s children would qualify for free or reduced-price lunches even if the Board of Education didn’t provide free meals for all schoolchildren.
Also in Greenbrier County, as reported by the Register-Herald’s Tina Alvey, 870 meals per week are delivered to elderly people, 1,100 families are served each month by food pantries, and 500 weekend food supplements, commonly known as “snacks in packs,” are sent home with children from five elementary schools every week.
The poverty rate in Raleigh County (20 percent) is not far behind, but it is Greenbrier County that attracts our attention because it is there and in eight other counties around the state where, shortly after the turn of the calendar year, the state, courtesy of House Bill 4001 passed in the 2018 session, will subject struggling residents to arbitrary and punishing limits as a condition of receiving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal program previously known as Food Stamps.
It is an extension of a failed pilot program from 2016 that targeted nine other counties. It required certain people enrolled in SNAP to hold down 20 hours of work per week. If, after four months, they were not meeting the requirement – some had work hours cut, others assumed family duties like caring for a sick child – they would lose their food assistance.
It was and remains a cruel and heartless answer to one of the more vulnerable populations in the state. It quite literally pushed 5,400 West Virginians off SNAP and, according to the Department of Human Resources own report to the House Health Committee in 2017, there was no significant impact on employment. What did it accomplish? It made life harder for entire communities that missed out on SNAP dollars being spent in their stores, and it took food off the dinner table of those in desperate need. Kids went to bed hungry.
And, so, despite the evidence and the failure, the 2016 pilot program is being extended to nine more counties, including Greenbrier and Monroe.
Can we do better? Of course – and we must. There is no shortage of common sense remedies – an earned income credit, hiking the minimum wage, improving access to health care services and education, to name just a few.
But first and foremost, to start erasing the prevalence and grinding effects of poverty in our state, legislators and the governor need to overturn HB4001.
The story of our state and of our economic recovery should begin with this simple thesis: There is more than enough to go around if we take account of our collective resources. Let us fight poverty – not the poor.