Poverty among children in West Virginia has increased since 1969, according to two advocacy groups. That ought to tell us something about the billions of dollars spent in attempts to lessen the problem: They haven’t done much good.
Fewer senior citizens live in poverty today, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. The organizations issued a report Tuesday noting the poverty rate among older Mountain State residents is just 10 percent now, compared to 39.2 percent in 1969. According to the center, Social Security benefits can be thanked for that gigantic improvement.
While there is no Social Security program for children, a variety of other government programs – Aid to Families With Dependent Children and Medicaid, to name two – have aimed to improve their lives. And it needs to be noted the Appalachian Region was a target of the “War on Poverty” launched during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration in the mid 1960s.
Yet, according to the report issued in late February, 19.1 percent of West Virginia children were in families below the federally designated poverty level in 1969 – while slightly more than 23 percent are in the same status today.
Simple year-by-year comparisons can be misleading, however. More comprehensive analyses show the primary driver of poverty among children has less to do with government programs than with the availability of jobs for parents.
The lingering recession, by increasing unemployment, has plunged tens of thousands of West Virginia children into poverty. Since 2008, when times were still relatively good, the poverty rate for all West Virginians has shot up from just 14.5 percent to 17.5 percent.
A 2009 study by the center made the situation crystal clear. It compared child poverty in West Virginia during times of relatively high employment with periods of recession. During the three periods studied from 1980-2001, recessions increased child poverty by as much as 15.8 percentage points.
In other words, the most effective strategy to lift children out of poverty is not more high-cost government programs, but getting out of the private sector’s way so it can create jobs. Though that lesson seems to have been ignored in Washington, it is one state officials should use to guide policy.