W.Va. continues to rank high in poverty

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W.Va. continues to rank high in poverty
By Joel Ebert, Federal Courts Reporter, Charleston Gazette-Mail

Kanawha County’s 17 percent poverty rate in 2014 was the highest it has been in the last decade, with the exception of 2011, when 17.2 percent of county residents were living in poverty, according to the latest data released by the U.S. Census Bureau last week. The finding is one of many that provide details about how West Virginia fared last year in terms of poverty and household income.

The data ultimately reveals West Virginia once again had a poor showing in both categories. With nearly 328,000 or about 18.3 percent of West Virginians living below the federal poverty line, the Mountain State had one of the highest poverty rates in the country last year.

The statewide average placed it ninth, behind only Mississippi, which had the highest with 21.5 percent, New Mexico, Louisiana, Kentucky and Arkansas. West Virginia had the same poverty rate in 2014 as both Tennessee and Georgia. West Virginia’s surrounding states had poverty rates ranging from 10.1 percent in Maryland to 19.1 percent in Kentucky.

According to the federal government, a family of four making less than $24,250 is defined as living in poverty, as is an individual making less than $14,720. A racial breakdown of the poverty rate shows significant disparities in West Virginia. Blacks had the highest poverty rate, with 31.6 percent, followed by American Indians and Asians, who came in at 30.9 and 19.8 percent, respectively. Whites in West Virginia had a poverty rate of 17.4 percent.

The state’s child poverty rate of 24.3 percent in 2014 was a slight decrease from the year before. About 89,528 children were living in poverty in West Virginia last year, which ranked the Mountain State the 13th highest in terms of child poverty in the nation.

On the county level, two out of seven — Kanawha and Monongalia County — saw their poverty rate in 2014 increase compared to the year before. Data is available only for seven out of West Virginia’s 55 counties because the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 annual estimates only include counties with populations greater than 65,000.
Those include Berkeley, Cabell, Harrison, Kanawha, Monongalia, Raleigh and Wood.

Among the state’s most populous counties, Monongalia had the highest poverty rate, with 25.6 percent. That was nearly a 5 percent increase from 2013.

Noting the state’s lack of progress in reducing poverty in recent years, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy said tax credits could help change the state’s situation.

“A state earned income tax credit would help low-wage earners stay on the job, allowing them to build a more secure future, while helping lift those struggling families out of poverty,” said Sean O’Leary, a policy analyst for the center.

The center estimated a tax credit set at 15 percent of the federal credit would benefit 158,000 working families by annually providing them an average of $332, which would put $52 million back into the local economy.

Twenty-six states, including Virginia and Ohio, have some form of an earned income tax credit.

In addition to the state’s poverty figures, West Virginia’s median household income in 2014 was $41,059, which placed the state 49th in the nation. That’s a slight drop compared to 2013. That year, the state’s median household income was $41,253, ranking it 48th in the nation, which was the lowest the state has placed in that category since 2005.

Additionally, West Virginia was one of six states — including Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Rhode Island and Wyoming — where the median household income decreased in 2014 compared to the year before.

Among surrounding states, Maryland had the highest median household income ($73,971), followed by Virginia ($64,902), Pennsylvania ($53,234), Ohio ($49,308) and Kentucky ($42,958).

On the county level, four counties — Monongalia, Cabell, Harrison and Kanawha — all saw decreases in median household income in 2014 compared to the year before. Raleigh and Wood saw slight increases, of 1 and 1.5 percent, respectively, and Berkeley saw an increase of 6.6 percent.

In the Charleston area, the median household income for 2014 was $42,761. In Beckley it was $39,498. Monongalia and Cabell County had the largest decreases.
Last year Monongalia saw a decrease of $7,579 or 15.3 percent compared to 2013.

Only three counties — Berkeley, Monongalia and Harrison — had a higher median household income in 2014 than in 2012.Discussing the latest poverty and household income data, Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said the Mountain State had been making real progress in terms of economic growth between 2009 and 2013.

Citing data from WorkForce West Virginia, Roberts said the state’s employment grew during that period, but that growth has come to a halt in recent years — in large part due to government regulations on the nation’s coal industry.

“We are seeing the ripple effects of that,” he said.

Yet despite the trends in poverty and household income, Roberts expressed optimism.

“Improving our economic standing is very much within our power to achieve,” he said, suggesting the state could make significant growth by reversing the decrease in manufacturing jobs that has happened in West Virginia, attempting to attract more banking and insurance companies and becoming a more prominent player in terms of obtaining more defense contracts.

“Given our proximity to Washington and Virginia naval bases we can make things that would be very useful to the U.S. military,” he said.

Roberts expressed further optimism over the Legislature’s ongoing efforts to reform the state’s tax system. “We support lowering taxes and a flatter, simpler tax base,” he said.

When asked whether or not he would support an earned income tax credit, Roberts said the chamber is not against the idea of thoroughly examining all options. “We think lower taxes and more money in people’s pocket improves the economy,” he said.