But the Senate also saw the first meeting of their special committee to address childhood poverty, and its members are well aware that they are taking on an issue that won’t be solved overnight.
When preparing for the
legislative session, Senate President Jeff Kessler said he looked at a variety
of issues he knew would garner attention, the growth of Medicaid in the budget,
the lack of labor participation, prison overcrowding, the high occurrences of
teen pregnancy and the high school drop out rate, and said he found they all
had a common basis: childhood poverty.
“A lot of the common
denominator, a lot of the society ills that we have start with childhood
poverty. The kids when they don’t grow up healthy, with an opportunity, with a
good education because of the fact that they’re born poor, through no fault of
their own obviously, they don’t have the opportunity to succeed and participate
in our society, in our economy, etc., and in our government,” Kessler said.
That’s why Kessler and Senate
Majority Chair John Unger of Berkeley County worked together to form the Select
Committee on Childhood Poverty, a committee Unger said is unlike any currently
in the Senate.
The special committee is
meant to bring together leaders from across the aisle, from all areas of
experience to do one thing; focus on the child.
Members include committee
chairs from Education, Finance, Judiciary, Health and Agriculture as well as
the Minority and Majority leaders. Kessler said they were all included to come
up with a more holistic approach to helping the 30 percent of West Virginia children currently living in poverty.
“So, we can take a view from
above, so to speak, from the airplane view of the problem and look at it in a
more comprehensive manner. Hopefully, with the idea that it will take a
sustained, long term focus and commitment of the legislature to address the issue
and effectively deal with it,” Kessler said.
Wednesday the committee heard
from leaders of two non-profit organizations. Margie Hale, Executive Director
of WV KIDS COUNT, presented data on teen pregnancy rates in the
state, while Dr. Pat Kusimo, president and CEO of the Education Alliance, spoke
about the link between poor academic achievement and poverty.
Education reform has already
become a clear priority for this session, but Unger said the childhood poverty
rate in the state is a contributing factor. He said we’ll never see the growth
in student achievement we’re looking for if we don’t reach out to the child
that needs help at home.
“We talk about student
achievement, how can we expect a child to achieve on a math test or English
test or whatever if they’re not present in the classroom, but they’re thinking
about what they’re going to go home to and if they’re going to have enough food
to eat?” Unger said.
“We really have to, if we
want to have student achievement, we have to get in there and help that child
so they don’t have this adverse childhood experience that leads them into other
problems later on as an adult.”
But Kessler and Unger both
agreed that poverty is not an issue that has a quick fix. Unger said it has
taken years to get to this point and government and community leaders must make
a long term commitment to reverse the problem.
“We have to change a culture.
We have to change a lifestyle. We have to look at and provide that alternative
so people have a healthy lifestyle and children are living in healthy
conditions and that’s going to take time. That’s going to take all of us,”
The committee will meet once
a week during the session, but also during Interims and at any other point they
deem necessary throughout the next two years, but Unger, who serves as
committee chair, said this group is not stationary. He will take his committee
meetings out into communities across the state to hear their solutions as well.