WEIRTON - From providing food for children in low-income households to changing a federal assistance program some believe is counterproductive, more than 40 representatives of local charities, community agencies, churches and local government on Wednesday had ideas about how to address the growth of poverty in West Virginia.
Stephen Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, said he was impressed by the diversity of people who turned out at Millsop Community Center to share issues they believe are tied to poverty and ways that it could be curbed.
The coalition is a nonprofit organization supported by the West Virginia Council of Churches that formed in 1998 to encourage the creation of the state's Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides health care coverage for children. It teamed with Catholic Charities West Virginia and C.H.A.N.G.E. Inc. to hold the meeting, the last of 45 held throughout the state. Participants will be invited to vote on the issues that will be incorporated into the coalition's platform, which the group will share with state lawmakers during the West Virginia Legislature's Kids and Families Day on Feb. 26 in Charleston.
POVERTY DISCUSSED — Stephen Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, sought input about how to address the growing poverty problem in the state from representatives of local charities, community agencies, churches and local government who gathered Wednesday in the Weirton Room of Millsop Community Center.
-- Warren Scott
Smith said poverty is a concern because 30 percent of West Virginia boys and girls under age 6 are poor, according to the Kids Count Data Center; and the state has the highest number of 16-to-19-year-olds not in school or the work force, according to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine.
Several representatives of community agencies said one problem is that federal assistance programs inadvertently encourage dependence on them and punish those trying to stand on their own. For example, single mothers are most eligible for aid, and one staff member said a married client was told by another party she would receive more help if she were divorced. Others said having a vehicle or being enrolled at a community college worked against clients' eligibility for assistance.
The reasoning is that if a person can afford a vehicle or college courses, they don't need financial aid, but both could help the person to rise from the poverty level, they said.
Someone suggested that just as welfare recipients receive work credit for volunteering at nonprofit agencies, they also receive credit for going to school.
Others complained that help often isn't available until a person is in dire financial straits, such as being faced with eviction or having their utilities shut off.
Angela Kocher, director of the Brooke-Hancock-Ohio-Marshall Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, said many residents "are living paycheck to paycheck" and it only takes one setback to push them into the poverty level.
Mike Toothman, public information officer with Youth Services System, suggested older adults seek young men and women who might benefit from someone to turn to when their car breaks down or offer experience in difficult times.
Kim Weaver, director of the Weirton Christian Center, said she's forming a local Compassion Network, a group of volunteers willing to help people in need in various ways, such as providing transportation, sharing cooking skills or helping children with homework. Those interested in participating should contact her at (304) 748-2350 or at email@example.com.
Tony Paesano, president of the Follansbee Chamber of Commerce, said child hunger is a growing problem. He said children can't be ready to learn if they arrive at school hungry.
On Monday Tom Davidson, child nutrition director for Brooke County Schools, said two other local schools may join Beech Bottom Primary School in their eligibility for free breakfasts and lunches through a federal program.
Paesano noted Brooke High School has teamed with C.H.A.N.G.E. Inc. to offer an after-school program that provides tutoring and dinner to about 80 teens. He suggested the program could be expanded.
Brooke County Commissioner Jim Andreozzi said a lack of good-paying jobs locally is the main problem, and he and other public officials must work to attract new businesses.
Following the program, Smith said expanding food programs and reforming the federal benefits system ranked second and third overall among priorities set at the other 44 meetings, while expanding Medicare to more under- or uninsured families ranked first.
He said in addition to bringing such issues to the state Legislature's attention, the coalition will work with local agencies to hold more local meetings for residents.
Smith said reducing poverty will take time.
"It took us, as a state, a whole generation to get into the trouble we're in," he said, noting a steady decline in jobs.
But Erin McDonald, regional director for Catholic Charities West Virginia, said such meetings help everyone to identify strategies for addressing the complex problem of poverty.
(Scott can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)