West Virginia is one of ten states where the number of children living in areas of concentrated poverty is increasing. That’s according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “Data Snapshot on High-Poverty Communities.”
Concentrated poverty is an area where 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
“In the United States, eight and a half million kids or 12 percent of the kids population in the United States are living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty,” said Scot Spencer, Associate Director for Advocacy and Influence at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “That is an improvement from our first snapshot. But it still means that there are too many kids living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.”
The Data Snapshot underscores that living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty undermines a child’s well-being. Nationwide, the number of people living in concentrated poverty is falling, but remains high. West Virginia is lower than the national average, but the numbers are rising.
Between the Casey Foundation’s last report in 2012 and the latest report using 2017 numbers, the number of children in West Virginia living in poverty rose from 30,000 to 38,000.
“Any kids living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty should be an unacceptable number for us. Because what it means for the long run is that their ability to succeed in life is truncated by living in these types of neighborhoods,” Spencer said.
West Virginia and Delaware are the only two states where poverty levels rose last year, according to U.S. Census data. The Mountain State’s overall poverty rate climbed to 19.1 percent last year, making it one of four states with a poverty rate above 18 percent.
“It doesn't matter whether you're in an urban environment or suburban environment or a rural environment. There are parts of the economy that have left places,” Spencer said. “And so just by the fact that the jobs that were once family sustaining jobs are no longer there. People then fall into poverty and pockets of neighborhoods fall into poverty.”
Spencer didn’t have detailed information on specific locations in West Virginia. But indicators exist that point to which regions are struggling.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, 22 percent of the households in the 3rd Congressional District -- which includes the southern coal fields -- use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits.
Spencer also noted a lack of access to hospitals and the presence of food deserts in these areas can compound the problems.
“There may just not be places for kids to be kids and to play and to grow up and to do well. There's a lack of access to quality education, the lack of access to quality housing, the lack of access to jobs,” he said.
Finding solutions to problems like concentrated poverty will involve federal, state and local governments working with the business sector and community groups, according to Spencer.
“How do we focus industry or sector specific job training and opportunities in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty so that people can actually make families sustaining wages? In places where there are large industries, how do they hire and contract locally? How does local government think about how they let their services or hire their contracts, so that they are actually hiring from the communities that they are in?” Spencer asked.
Spencer also notes that financial hardships can cause chronic stress linked to diabetes, heart disease and stroke -- all major health problems in West Virginia.