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Poverty pilot program unfunded, even as legislators seek to aid poor

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As a state Senate committee continues to study how best to measure and fight child poverty, a pilot program that would do just that is going unfunded.

Legislators passed a bill last year to set up a program on Charleston's West Side that would better organize the work of state agencies to improve the lives of at-risk kids. The state Department of Health and Human Resources is supposed to partner with a community organization to provide comprehensive, holistic programs to help poor children. The program would try to coordinate existing funding to cut waste and achieve better outcomes.

But the bill did not specify a funding source and the agency's budget is expected to be cut by $10.9 million beginning July 1, as part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's 7.5 percent in across-the-board budget cuts.

"We do not believe it would require a large amount of funding because we're talking about better managing the funding that's there,'' said the Rev. Matthew Watts, pastor at Grace Bible Church in Charleston and the president of HOPE Youth and Family Services, which would implement the program if it gets funding. "But it does require some funding to oversee the management and bring everything together.''

Watts said he thought the program would require about $250,000 from the state in the first year and somewhat less than that in subsequent years. Watts also said that DHHR Secretary Rocco Fucillo supports the program. Fucillo's office did not respond to requests for comment.

Although the bill passed by wide margins, it included contingency language that only put the program into effect "if funds are available.''

The program was to run for four years. It would measure its effectiveness through a variety of metrics: health screenings for infants, truancy rates, reading levels, dropout rates and job training enrollment, among others. It was instructed to document what worked best and could be replicated in other areas.

The Senate committee on child poverty has stressed the importance of looking for programs and solutions that can be measured and are proven to work.

"You can't improve what you don't measure,'' Kathy Szafran, president of Crittenton Services, told the committee on Wednesday.

Last week the committee was briefed on the Reconnecting McDowell program that aims to improve opportunities in McDowell County, one of the state's most impoverished regions.

McDowell County leads the state by wide margins in teen pregnancy rates and prescription drug abuse. The county has lost more than 80 percent of its population since 1965 as many of its coal mines have either shut down or shed jobs because of mechanization. More than 70 percent of children in McDowell County live in a house that does not have an adult with a job.

Reconnecting McDowell is in year two of a five-year plan.

"At what point will we have developed a template that can be replicated?'' asked Sen. William Laird, D-Fayette. "Because there's not a lot of difference between being the worst [county] and the second to worst.''

Bob Brown, the coordinator of Reconnecting McDowell, said that they absolutely hope to develop a model that can be used throughout rural counties not only in West Virginia but all over the country.

But the sheer scope and ambition of the program -- it has 110 partners, including corporations such as Cisco, Verizon and VH-1 -- could make it difficult to replicate.

"For whatever reason, the stars lined up on this and a lot of national partners stepped up to the plate,'' Brown said. "A lot of that is because it is being led by two national figures, [American Federation of Teachers head] Randi Weingarten and Gayle Manchin," wife of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin.

Even with established programs like Reconnecting McDowell, and no shortage of nonprofits eager to advise and help, the task of fighting child poverty in the state is daunting.

"In the weeks that we've been meeting we've identified a lot of problems,'' said Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph. "I can only speak for myself, but I'm probably more confused now on how to achieve solutions.''


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