By David Gutman
The Charleston Gazette
More than one in four kids in West Virginia lives in poverty. That’s nearly 100,000 kids.
One in three West Virginia kids under the age of 5 lives in poverty.
Those numbers come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, which showed a statistically significant increase in child poverty in West Virginia for the first time since at least 2009.
In West Virginia, 27 percent of kids and 33 percent of kids under 5 live in poverty. Both of those numbers are the highest they’ve been in the past five years, despite significant improvement in other economic factors over that time.
West Virginia’s unemployment rate spiked in 2009 because of the financial crisis, peaking at 8.5 percent in 2010. Since then, it has fluctuated some, but has declined fairly steadily. It was 6.6 percent in August. Similarly, after plummeting in 2009, the state’s gross domestic product has grown by at least 2.5 percent every year since, except for 2012.
“These poverty numbers are showing that this growth isn’t lifting all of us, that the people at the bottom are being left behind,” said Sean O’Leary, an economic analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a progressive think tank. “It’s a wakeup call that we can’t just rely on general economic growth to address poverty.”
Overall, about one in five West Virginians — 18.5 percent — lives in poverty. Only 9.4 percent of senior citizens in West Virginia live in poverty.
For a family of four, the poverty line in 2013 was $23,550. That number, and the associated poverty rates, almost certainly underestimate the number of people actually living in poverty.
The poverty threshold was developed in the 1960s by taking the average food budget for a low-income family and multiplying it by three. It is updated every year for inflation, but otherwise has changed little since then. Other measures are much higher — reflecting the fact that food is a smaller portion of household budgets than it used to be — and thus, would paint an even bleaker picture of the number of West Virginians struggling to get by.
For instance, WorkForce West Virginia calculates a “self-sufficiency standard,” which estimates how much money a family needs to get by without any help from government programs or charities.
“Families’ need for survival in the 21st century, compared to family necessities in 1960, when the federal measure was first implemented, have changed drastically,” WorkForce West Virginia wrote.
The self-sufficiency standard uses not just food costs, but also housing, child care, transportation, health care and other factors.
For a family of four, with two adults, one preschooler and one school-age child in Kanawha County, WorkForce West Virginia estimates a self-sufficiency standard of $47,145, more than double the poverty line.
“These are people who can’t meet their most basic needs,” O’Leary said of the official poverty numbers. “There are lots more who are struggling, who may be just a few days of missed work from falling into that category.”
About half the schools in West Virginia participate in a federal program that offers free breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of family income.
That includes almost every school in Kanawha County.
“It really becomes our responsibility to try to take care of these children as much as we can,” said Superintendent Ron Duerring. “It could be anywhere from a lot of times we clothe children who may not have the means to get the clothing they need, especially as the seasons change, to additional school supplies.”
Also in the new Census report:
| Only 54 percent of West Virginians age 16 and older either have a job or are looking for a job. That’s 9 percentage points lower than the national average, although part of that discrepancy is because West Virginia has a significantly higher percentage of elderly people than the nation as a whole.
| Median household income for West Virginians was $41,253, about $10,000 lower than the national average. Median income in West Virginia has not increased significantly since at least 2009, and it has fallen significantly in the nation as a whole.
| Among the 50 states, West Virginia had the third-largest gap between median incomes for men and for women. The average man in West Virginia with a full-time job earned nearly $45,000. The average woman earned just more than $31,000.