Guest column: Working to scale back on child poverty

On the first day of the regular session, the Senate adopted Senate Resolution 6, which created the Select Committee on Children and Poverty. During the regular session, Children and Poverty has met once a week to hear from various speakers regarding the many issues impacting West Virginians living below the poverty line.

According to a recently released report by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, child poverty in our state has increased significantly in the last 40 years – growing from 19.1 percent in 1969 to more than 23 percent today. One in three West Virginia children under age 6 currently live in poverty.

The study shows children with parents who didn’t graduate high school, those with single mothers and those with unemployed parents are more likely to live in poverty. About half of families with single mothers in the state live below the federal poverty line and more than 30 percent of single-father families live in poverty.

Children most harmed by poverty are those who live in “deep poverty”. In West Virginia, 46 percent of the children below the poverty threshold are living in deep poverty, meaning they have family incomes less than 50 percent of the federal poverty level. More than one in every 10 West Virginia children live in deep poverty, living on less than $11, 406 a year for a family of four.

The Senate Select Committee will meet throughout the year during the monthly interim meetings that will begin once the regular session ends in April to continue discussions and travel throughout the state, visiting each of the 17 Senate Districts to see firsthand how poverty is affecting West Virginians and their children. Thus far the committee has visited Oak Hill and Beckley in the 9th and 10th Districts respectively with more visits around the state expected in the future.

Also, the committee has originated a bill which the Senate passed last week, Senate Bill 663, also called the West Virginia Feed to Achieve Act, which would provide free school meals to all public school students in the Mountain State.

The bill to establish the Feed to Achieve program would also set-up a framework to make sure children have enough food when they go home at the end of the day, over the weekends and during summer break. As it is written, the bill would require county boards of education to adopt delivery systems to be sure all students have an adequate opportunity to eat breakfast, lunch or other food throughout the day. The program would be phased in, starting with elementary school students first, with the intention of expanding through 12th grade. The West Virginia Department of Education would assist each county board of education establish public-private partnerships.

The bill would also require the state Department of Education and each of the individual county boards to create a non-profit fund to collect public and private grants, donations and endowments to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students by the start of the school year in 2015. This could also help draw down more federal funding. Participation levels in the state schools’ free breakfast and lunch programs hover at about 36 percent currently, but if participation goes up, more federal funds would be available for it. A 20 percent increase would get $13 million in federal funds.

If you should have any questions or comments regarding any issues on any other pieces of legislation when they come before the Legislature, feel free to contact me here at my Charleston office. My address is: Senator Jack Yost, State Capitol Complex, Building 1, Room 214W, Charleston, WV 25305. My telephone number is (304) 357-7984 and my secretary is Wanda Casto. When calling the toll free number 1-877-565-3447, ask to be transferred. I encourage all my constituents to remain active and become part of the legislative process. I look forward to hearing from you.

(Yost, a Democrat from Wellsburg, represents the 1st Senatorial District in the West Virginia Legislature)