WV Spot Light What Persistent Poverty Looks Like in WV

Kids, the working poor and people of color: Here’s what persistent poverty looks like in West Virginia

Advocates and experts say that the way poverty looks in West Virginia — and the way it can be solved — is different than many people might imagine.

For the next two months, lawmakers will be at the state Capitol for their annual legislative session. Each year is a chance for them to pass new laws, as well as make sure those that are already in place are achieving what they intended. 

In one of the poorest states in the nation, for some, a key question is whether the laws in place are in fact helping all West Virginians — including the more than 300,000 residents living in poverty. In many places around the state, this isn’t a new problem: 11 of West Virginia’s 55 counties are classified as “in persistent poverty” by the U.S. Census Bureau, having a poverty rate of 20% or higher continually for the past three decades.

In the past, often lawmakers have passed laws and proposed plans to reduce poverty in the state by tackling the issue like a sprint, and not the marathon that it actually is. 

“I know that there are great people doing great work, but they develop these programs and these projects to service the poor, when no one is focusing on helping the poor, not being poor,” said Dr. Shanequa Smith. 

Smith, who has a masters in school counseling from Marshall University and a doctorate in human and community development from West Virginia University, works with one of the communities most impacted by poverty: Charleston’s West Side. 

She said poverty is a deeply rooted issue that needs more attention and dedication from the ground up in order for there to be real change. 

“We won’t get out of poverty until we heal,” she said. 

How is poverty defined? 

The U.S. Census defines poverty by looking at a family’s income and measuring it against a set threshold, or base income, needed to cover basic needs such as housing, groceries and medical costs. 

The earning threshold for poverty varies from state to state and family to family. The Census estimates that for a family of four, they are considered poor if their income is $30,000 a year. Many federal and state programs — like SNAP  and TANF — offer services to people who earn slightly more, up to a certain percentage above the federal poverty level. 

Who is living under the poverty line in West Virginia?

When people think about a poor person, they often think about someone going through addiction, or experiencing homelessness. But many fail to imagine working families as those who are often experiencing poverty, and as the Census data shows, an estimated 76% of people living below the poverty line in West Virginia are employed in some capacity. 

“I know mothers that work over 40 hours a week, and do not have enough money to buy their children food,” Smith said, adding that she also knows of working parents who have worked for decades and still qualify for government assistance programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid.  

Just like across the nation, West Virginians of color are more likely to be classified as poor: more than 30% of Black West Virginians and 22% of Latino West Virginians are living in poverty, according to data from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. 

But a large number of West Virginia’s poor are children. 

Between 2021 and 2022, West Virginia was the only state to see an increase in the number of children experiencing poverty — going from 20.7% to 25% of kids in the state.

The “stingy” laws keeping families and children in poverty

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour — where it’s been since 2009. In West Virginia, it’s slightly higher: in 2014, lawmakers passed a bill to raise the state’s minimum wage incrementally. Since 2015, it’s been $8.75 an hour. Even so, it would take working 62 hours a week at that rate for a worker to afford a modest one-bedroom rental house, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Kelly Allen, director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, says that the affordability crisis has been exacerbated by increasing restrictions on aid programs. 

“We have very stingy programs, like TANF, which is the only cash assistance program in the state for very low income families,” Allen said. “And lawmakers kind of chipped away at it and it’s serving very, very few families.

In 2017, the Department of Health and Human Resources launched a three-year pilot program that required people getting aid through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to go through a drug screening process. In 2021, legislators made the program permanent. 

The result was a decline in families receiving those benefits, as West Virginians continue to struggle with opioid addiction. 

Child care for working families is also a necessity, and without subsidies it would otherwise be completely unaffordable for those experiencing poverty. Both Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, and Gov. Jim Justice have said they would support a bill this session implementing a child care tax credit for working families.

But Allen said there are other tax changes which could be helpful, too.

“We don’t have an earned income tax credit, we don’t have a state level child tax credit,” Allen said. “These are programs that many other states have to ensure that families with children can make ends meet and support their families.” 

Counties experiencing “persistent poverty”

Residents in Barbour, Braxton, Clay, Fayette, Lincoln, Logan, McDowell, Mingo, Monongalia, Summers and Webster counties have consistently ranked among the poorest in the state.  

The poorest county was McDowell, with a median household income of $27,682 a year, according to Census data. That places residents there more than 40% below the state median income. 

But even in more prosperous counties, there are pockets of persistent poverty. In Kanawha County, only a short distance from the Capitol, there are eight Census tracts where poverty rates over 20% have persisted for more than three decades. 

One of those is one of the state’s only majority-Black Census tracts, on Charleston’s West Side. Here, programs are helping families break the cycle of poverty by providing food in their after-school programs for students K-12. 

“All of the kids in our program come from working families that are experiencing poverty,” Edna Green, the former assistant director of the Partnership for African-American Churches, said.

There’s evidence that this kind of intervention can pay off for children later in life: studies have shown that children who participate in early childhood education programs, after-school programs and extracurricular activities are less likely to become homeless, experience teen pregnancy, addiction, and incarceration. Less than 4% of the over 100 students who participate in the after-school program on the West Side experience incarceration, addiction or homelessness later on in life, according to Green.

“I’ll quote Frederick Douglass: ‘it’s easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men,’” Smith said. 

This kind of approach requires long-term thinking — both from communities and lawmakers.

“But if you just want to pop up with a program, or you just want to pop up with a workshop and think you’re going to sprinkle some goodness on the community and leave, nothing is going to change,” she said.