Finding more effective ways of reducing poverty in West Virginia is both a moral imperative and an economic necessity, as state Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, pointed out recently. And because many children unquestionably are victims of poverty, it makes sense to focus on them.
A legislative panel, the Select Committee on Children and Poverty, began holding hearings on the challenge last week. Before lawmakers are finished, they will have sought opinions in each of West Virginia's state Senate districts.
Another focus of legislators this year is public education reform. But no matter how effective that campaign proves to be, it cannot remove the chief barrier to learning that afflicts too many children: poverty and, we would add, homes where there is little, if any, support for education.
Students from "low socio-economic status" homes tend to perform worse than their classmates in most cases, research indicates. Here in West Virginia, classrooms full of lower SES youngsters are the norm. Of the state's 820 public schools, only 93 have student bodies composed of fewer than 40 percent low-SES children.
"We can have the best schools, the best facilities, the most modern technology, the best teachers in the classroom and the best curriculum you could possibly have, and you can have the child sitting in that seat physically - but mentally, they're not there," explained state Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, of the challenge of poor children.
Unger is chairman of the select committee, and he understands the "toxic stress" some children face, due to poverty and other factors in the home.
For more than 50 years, state and federal programs aimed at helping the poor have been failing miserably to lift around one in 10 West Virginians out of poverty. During the past few years, the poverty rate in our state has increased.
During their hearings, members of the select committee will hear some genuine horror stories about children and poverty. They also will hear a variety of suggestions - most of them involving increased government spending, we suspect. Thoughtful legislators will take such recommendations with a whole boxful of grains of salt.
Still, doing more for those "lower SES" children is vital - again, as Kessler emphasized, from both a moral and an economic standpoint.
Let's hope the committee can come up with a strategy that really helps.