2020 Mountain Spotlight Article of Governor’s Poverty Bill

Charleston’s West Side neighborhood runs alongside the Kanawha River, where houses are stacked together between blocks of businesses that have managed to hang on — a hardware store, a popular BBQ joint, a dentist’s office. The community winds into the twisting hills of Edgewood, Charleston’s first suburb, with its historic, opulent homes.

The West Side has character, it has grit. An area of town near the interstate has seen a revitalization with a coffee shop, a vinyl record store and an upscale bridal boutique.

And the community is also home to staggering poverty. 

The West Side’s history of segregation combined with its lack of well-paying jobs, high rates of drug abuse and low-ranked schools make it fertile ground for change.

Black leaders in Charleston thought the city’s West Side was the perfect place to test a program that would really focus on bringing people out of poverty. And, in 2015, they pitched an idea to then-gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice, who was running for his first-ever political office as a Democrat. 

Justice set up a meeting with Black leaders at a church on the West Side, minutes from the state Capitol. 

He needed their support, he said, and he’d make sure to give them something in return.

Pastors and nonprofit leaders told Justice they wanted to model how a web of existing nonprofits could come together to address substance abuse, mental health, education and more in the West Side, then replicate the program in other poor West Virginia towns.

Rev. Matthew Watts, a pastor on the West Side and a leader in developing the idea, was in the room.

“The big thing that came out of [the meeting] was Justice said, ‘If I’m elected, and you have an idea that really helps people in West Virginia … I’ll support it,’” Watts recalled.

Justice won the governor’s race, and his Democratic administration started working on the anti-poverty bill. Then-Republican House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead (R-Kanawha) filed the measure, HB 2724, on behalf of the governor, signaling Justice prioritizing the project, though it didn’t come with any money attached to it.

The bill didn’t name explicitly Charleston’s West Side, but lawmakers said they’d known the intent was to pilot it on the West Side. House Minority Leader Tim Miley (D-Harrison), a co-sponsor of the bill, said lawmakers assumed it would be tried on the West Side because of Watts’ vocal support of the bill and presence at the Capitol. 

“Even if it wasn’t spoken, everyone assumed,” Miley said.

Justice signed the bill into law in April of 2017.

Four months later, the billionaire governor announced at a Huntington rally with President Donald Trump that he was switching to the Republican Party. As part of his party change, many of Justice’s personnel focused on implementing the pilot project were fired or left.

The pilot project, which was set to expire in July 2021, and the promises to the Black community in Charleston were swept to the side, before what would prove to be a crucial time. The law would have increased health care access on the West Side; the coronavirus pandemic came and people experiencing poverty and Black West Virginians were infected at disproportionate rates.

The legislative committee tasked with overseeing the bill’s progress hasn’t met since 2019. And earlier this year, the legislation morphed into a grant program, from which the director of the state minority affairs office promised thousands of dollars to nonprofits in Kanawha County and the Eastern Panhandle. 

Where is the pilot project in the law, that could be measured and then replicated from one community to the next?

Giving money to nonprofits around the state wasn’t what lawmakers voted on, according to Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha.

“You have to remember this is the governor’s bill,” Pushkin said. “If he put his name on it, he should follow through and finish the job he started.”

Watts said the bungled bill is yet another misstep in the Justice administration’s attempts to address  poverty in one of the poorest states in the country.

“It shows the apathetic feeling this administration has toward people in poverty,” he said. “This is the real story: Justice knows nothing about this, has no interest in this and never had any interest in it as a Democratic governor.”

Justice’s press office did not respond to questions for this story.