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Poverty gets a face

Chris Dorst
Sabrina Shrader tells a joint legislative committee what it was like growing up poor in McDowell County during Wednesday's Our Children Our Future Symposium. To the left are Storm Coleman (in jeans) and Joshua Napier (in black), who also shared their stories with the committee.
Chris Dorst The Our Children Our Future Symposium addressed a joint committee on child poverty to suggest policies and swap ideas during interim legislative meetings on Wednesday.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When she was a kid, Sabrina Shrader used to go with her dad and her three brothers and sisters into the woods of Twin Branch Hollow in McDowell County to hunt for ginseng that they would sell to local dealers. Anything to make a little extra money.

Shrader was born into poverty. So were her parents. And her grandparents. And her great-grandparents.

Now 29, she is working hard to break that generational cycle. In 2002, she became the first member of her family to finish high school. She is the first member of her family to graduate from college. Come June, she's on track to be the first member of her family to earn a master's degree.

It's not been easy. Shrader and her husband both have jobs, but they still struggle. She said she hasn't even thought about having kids because she doesn't see how she could support them.

"Even if you work hard, even if you do everything that you're supposed to do, you still can't make ends meet," she said Wednesday.

Shrader fought through sobs to speak to legislators at the Our Children Our Future Symposium, taking place at the Capitol during interim legislative meetings. She and other community leaders were there to put a face on the issue of child poverty.

Shrader works at Concord University in the Upward Bound program, helping low-income high school students in Mercer, McDowell, Summers, Monroe and Greenbrier counties prepare for college. The program offers counseling and tutoring, and on Saturdays its staff members take students to tour college campuses and museums. Shrader went through the program herself and credits it for her success in college.

Under the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration, Upward Bound's budget has been cut by 5.2 percent this year.

"That's 10 kids that we have to turn our backs on," Shrader said.

Joshua Napier, 20, got his job, which he loves, on March 15, 2012. His daughter was born the same day, two-and-a-half months premature.

Napier will qualify for Medicaid in January under the expanded eligibility offered by the Affordable Care Act, but he doesn't have health insurance now and he was uninsured when his daughter was born and had to spend months in a neo-natal intensive care unit.

That's led to a year and a half of haggling with the hospital over bills, trying to pay what he can and being told again and again that it's not enough.

"It's awful not having health insurance," Napier said.

Napier works as a carpenter for Coalfield Development Corp., a nonprofit, turning dilapidated buildings in Southern West Virginia into low-income housing.

Before getting his current job, he had cycled through three fast-food jobs in two years, earning next to minimum wage and dealing with demanding, unpleasant customers. Putting up with bad attitudes is never easy, Napier said, but it's that much tougher at $7.25 an hour.

"It makes you realize how hard it is to work fast-food jobs," Napier said.

His wife works at Subway. Even with their combined incomes, they have to rely on food stamps to get by.

"There are some people, like me, who can't make it without some help," Napier said.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name for food stamps, provides an average benefit of $1.40 per meal.

The U.S. House of Representatives, with exclusively Republican votes, passed a bill last week that would cut the program by $40 billion over the next 10 years. West Virginia Reps. Nick J. Rahall and Shelley Moore Capito voted against the cuts (Capito was one of only 15 Republicans to vote against the bill); Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., voted for the bill.

Storm Coleman, 15, lives with his disabled mother, his brother and his sister in Logan County. He remembers when he was younger, waking up hungry and feeling sick because there hadn't been enough to eat the night before.

Coleman urged the Legislature's Joint Committee on Children and Families to consider families like his.

"Put yourself in their shoes, or my mom's shoes," Coleman told the 11 lawmakers. "You're overweight, you're in pain all day and you've got three kids to take care of."

About one in five West Virginians, and one in four West Virginia kids, lives below the federal poverty line -- $23,550 for a family of four -- according to census data. Nearly 60 percent of West Virginia households earned less than double the poverty threshold in 2012, a level generally considered low-income.

"Living at or near poverty is the norm for kids in West Virginia," wrote Stephen Smith, director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, a primary sponsor of the symposium. "This problem is not about trying to rescue a few kids and families who live at the margins; it's about fixing an entire system where working parents can no longer afford to support their kids."

The policy symposium presented 18 ideas -- one for each year of a child's life - for the Legislature take up to alleviate child poverty in the state.

The proposals tackle economic policy (affordable housing, a state earned-income tax credit), criminal justice (more substance-abuse treatment, reforming juvenile justice) and health policy (more recess and physical education in schools, restricting soda from SNAP benefits), among others.

The list eventually will be winnowed down to five concrete policy goals for 2014's legislative session.

Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, said that, after passing legislation expanding school breakfast programs last year, the Committee on Child Poverty, which he chairs, hopes to focus on early childhood education, increasing physical activity for kids and affordable-housing projects.

The symposium sponsors said they also hope to register 7,500 new voters this year, in the process, connecting working families with services like Medicaid and SNAP that they might not have realized they were eligible for.

"Poverty," Shrader said, "is not a child's fault."

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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