2022 Gazette-Mail Poverty not on Legislators Agends-Joe Severino

Poverty legislation not on Capitol agendas, but on minds of advocates

By Joe Severino

joe.severino@hdmediallc.com Feb 12, 2022

The Rev. Matthew Watts, pastor at Grace Bible Church and a community activist on Charleston’s West Side, speaks at a House Education Committee meeting in January 2020. PERRY BENNETT | WV Legislative Photography

Longtime advocates for West Virginia’s most impoverished communities say state leadership can’t miss their shot at finally getting it right.

There’s been talk inside the Capitol this legislative session about the state’s finances. Most lawmakers say the government is, for once, flush with cash. They also have a lot of ideas about how to spend it.

Republican leadership has leveraged these surpluses, which policy analysts say come from a combination of low-balling revenue estimates and billions of federal relief dollars, with the $1 billion Nucor steel recycling plant deal. Other economic projects, such as a planned electric bus facility in South Charleston, have borrowed from these surpluses. Various tax cuts and unemployment bills have consumed House and Senate floor debates.

What is not being discussed is the lingering effects of generational poverty across West Virginia, said the Rev. Matthew Watts, senior pastor of Grace Bible Church on Charleston’s West Side. Watts has been a presence in the halls of the Capitol in the last two decades, trying to win legislators’ support for bills seeking to fight poverty conditions head-on.

Health, wealth, educational, economic, criminal justice and housing disparities continue to widen across the country as the United States enters its third year in a pandemic. Watts said he and fellow advocates long have pushed for significant, publicly-funded research into these conditions. This research would quantify and identify problems and lawmakers could use the findings to pass good policy.

Most of the time, the pleas of Watts and others fell on deaf ears.

Facing unprecedented challenges, the federal government showered states in taxpayer money, creating unprecedented resources designed for a truly unique opportunity for generational change, Watts said. The “we’re strapped for cash” excuse has been eliminated.

“The only thing that is missing is unprecedented leadership,” Watts said.

Composed of ministers and community leaders across Charleston — primarily from the West Side — the Tuesday Morning Group has met once a week for decades to discuss current affairs. Watts, the group’s president, and Rick Martin, its vice president, again are trying to get lawmakers to shift attention to poverty.

The group’s record working with the Democratic Party is well-documented. Despite the strong majority Democrats enjoyed in the 2000s, Kanawha County representatives told Watts not to bring them anything with the word “minority” in it because their caucus wouldn’t pass it. Proposed bills have similarly fizzled out with Republicans since their legislative takeover in the 2014 election. Watts said there had been engagement, but GOP leadership never has pushed bills across the finish line.

Minorities in West Virginia face far worse poverty conditions than the rest of the population. One in three Black West Virginians lived in poverty in 2007 when the majority of Democrats decided this was not a legislative concern, despite the poverty rate for Caucasians being half that of Blacks, at 17%. Watts and company gave up long ago on appealing to lawmakers on racial disparities and asked them to instead combat economic inequalities across the population.

That hasn’t worked, either.

The Tuesday Morning Group re-proposed seven previous bills to Gov. Jim Justice; Senate President Craig Blair, R[1]Berkeley; Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier; House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay; and House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, on Feb. 4. Skaff is president of HD Media, publisher of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

All the previous bills underwent due diligence in the statehouse over the last two decades, but when lawmakers left after the session, the programs created under the bills neither were sustained nor funded.

“This is a compilation of our work and our ideas over this 20-year period,” Watts said.

A bill considered by the 2009 Legislature, but never advanced, would have created a community development school pilot program. In 2012, lawmakers did not ensure a bill creating a special community-based project focusing on at-risk youth was never funded. In 2017, lawmakers passed this legislation again, but again didn’t fund it. Two bills, one passed in 2004 and one that died in the House in 2018, specifically targeted minority small business ownership and economic development.

“If you look at the legislations, most of them call for the creation of a pilot project,” Watts said.

Group members conducted their own research, analyzing data and trying to operate their own community programs without the state’s help. Lawmakers were handed the data and the bills, but it’s not been enough to get them to address the government systems that exacerbate poverty.

“The only way to change the system is with policy,” Watts said.

Justice extended an initial olive branch to the Tuesday Morning Group. In fall 2016, his campaign team arranged a meeting with Watts and about 25 other Black pastors as the gubernatorial election neared.

“He said, ‘Nobody cares about you. They don’t respect you. They’re not listening to you, and they’re not going to do nothing for you,” Watts said.

That would change if Justice got elected, Martin recalled the coal magnate promising.

“He said ‘If you all are serious about getting something done for the people’ — speaking primarily of the minority communities — ‘I’m your man.’”

After winning election, Justice agreed to champion a pilot project for the West Side. The bill passed into law, but the program never received the support the legislation called for following Justice’s switch to the Republican Party.

Justice has the chance to do something former governors Earl Ray Tomblin and Joe Manchin did not: direct minimal resources to first-hand research in West Virginia’s most impoverished areas, Watts said. If community development can happen on the West Side, it can happen anywhere.

There’s been hardly any legislative momentum behind a Tuesday Morning Group measure since the pilot bill, which additionally would have established a 20-person team to study health disparities. Watts noted the Justice administration shrugged off their last idea for an economic equity initiative that would have reserved 20% of the state’s $1.25 billion in federal pandemic relief money for West Virginia’s estimated 240 census tracts with a poverty rate of 20% or higher.

The group hopes Justice will finally make good on his promise.

“Nothing has been done of any significance to change the trajectory of the least, the last, the lost, the left behind,” Martin said.

“It’s not just about the health disparities,” Martin said. “It’s about the disparities across the board.”

About 280,000 West Virginians live in poverty, according to the latest census figures. Nearly 70,000 are children. The state’s child poverty rate is slightly less than 20%.

Bringing facts into a building where politics rule never has benefited the Tuesday Morning Group. It’s been easy for lawmakers and governors to dismiss their concerns as race and neighborhood issues, Watts said.

“Kids are dying in the street and we’re not supposed to be concerned?”

They never protested, made demands or disrespected public officials, Watts said. They were just trying to fight for their community in a way no one else was.

“We continued to come back year after year — year after year — and do what citizens are supposed to do,” Watts said. “Engage — to be educated, informed, enlightened and to engage in the process.”

“We feel that we’ve done our responsibility as private citizens.”

The West Side has a life expectancy of 62.3, according to the census. That ties with Huntington’s West End neighborhood for 27th lowest in the country. The town of Logan averaged second lowest at 56.9 — 39% lower than the national average of 78.6. Five of the 40 most impoverished census tracts in America are in the Mountain State, and one is just a minute’s drive from the statehouse.

Twenty-plus years of community-based research has gone into the seven bills the Tuesday Morning Group is calling to finally be appropriately implemented.

“We tried to create a framework that could work anywhere in the state of West Virginia, and we believe that we have done that,” Watts said.

If researchers can refute the group’s decades of work, Watts said, he’ll “sit down and shut up.”

The National Center for Health Statistics released data Thursday officially marking West Virginia second-to-last in average life expectancy at 74.5 years, down from 75.3, just ahead of Mississippi, another long-struggling state.

Martin called it “insulting” that lawmakers have not sounded the alarm on life expectancy.

“I suspect one of the reasons that there is not a public debate on the part of our legislators is because the information presented is irrefutable.” Martin said.

The data “seems to be just simply ignored,” he said.

So, too, has been the Tuesday Morning Group. Martin said it’s past time for lawmakers to take action.

“The resources are there,” he said.

“We believe this is the people’s money. It’s not the politicians’ money,” Watts said.

Joe Severino, Politics Reporter