CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Democratic legislators joined with children’s advocacy groups in the state Capitol on Tuesday to kick off the “Our Children, Our Future” campaign to fight child poverty in the state.
Speaking to a crowd of children and families, Senate President Jeffrey Kessler described the campaign to end child poverty as the most important one the state has seen in some time. He said that child poverty has serious repercussions not only on children and families, but also on the state’s budget.
“It’s trying to lift people out of the situation they find themselves in,” Kessler said. “Give them an opportunity so that we don’t end up paying as taxpayers. It’s not only the right thing to do from a moral and social standpoint; it’s the right thing to do from a tax standpoint.”
Senate Majority Leader John Unger compared the evils of society to the Death Star from “Star Wars.” He said that child poverty was the crucial hub within the Death Star that legislators could attack.
“This Death Star continues to grow, day after day after day. And people try to fire on it to destroy it, but it won’t, it’s protected,” Unger explained. “Except Luke Skywalker who was the hero figured out that there was one way of destroying this Death Star and that is there is this one place in the Death Star where you could drop a bomb and it would blow up.”
Unger said that education reform, which the legislature is currently considering, is virtually moot if they fail to tackle child poverty.
“We can have the best teachers, we can have the best classrooms, we can have the best curriculum, but if that child is sitting in that classroom wondering when their next meal is going to come, how are we going to expect them to learn?” Unger said.
The campaign proposed a multifaceted platform to attacking child poverty in the state that focuses on health care, domestic violence prevention, child care programs, healthy foods, reducing teen pregnancy and reducing school truancy.
Nearly a quarter of all children in West Virginia live below the poverty line and more than half qualify for free or reduced school lunches.
The 10-point platform was the end result of 94 proposals submitted at 48 community meetings across the state that were then debated, whittled down and voted on.
The campaign emphasized Medicaid expansion in the state as a primary goal. Medicaid expansion, which is an optional provision of the federal Affordable Care Act, would offer health insurance to more than 100,000 West Virginians with income levels starting just above the poverty line. For the first three years the expansion would be fully paid for by the federal government. After three years, the federal government would cover 90 percent of costs with the state picking up the rest.
West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is one of only two Democratic governors who have not yet committed to expanding Medicaid. Eight Republican governors have committed to expanding the program. Tomblin is waiting on a fiscal study of the state Medicaid system before he decides.
Kessler said he supported Medicaid expansion and said he expects that the pending study will reveal the expansion both saves money and is the right thing to do.
The campaign endorsed Tomblin’s recent proposal to spend $17 million to provide child care for low-income parents.
It proposes expanding education and health services for prospective teen mothers.
The campaign endorsed reform of the state’s overcrowded prison system, noting that it costs five times as much to incarcerate a prisoner for a year as it does to provide a year of high-quality child care.