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Not for the children

SEN. John Unger told a story this week about speaking to a group of third-graders. He told them how the Legislature works, and they pretended to be senators. You can imagine the kinds of bills they proposed. Longer recess. Second lunch.

But the thing that stopped the state Senate majority leader in his tracks was one boy who explained which of those two bills he would rather see signed into law.

"Second lunch," the boy said. Because then he could eat more at school, he wouldn't have to eat his mom's and dad's food in the evening, and there would be more food for his little brother.

Even Unger, no stranger to thinking or working on poverty, was momentarily speechless. He shared the story at the sixth annual Worth Our Care Symposium in a room full of professionals accustomed to meeting people in desperate circumstances. Even there, the boy's plain, practical words were breathtaking.

"It dawned on me that morning," Unger said. "How are they going to learn? How are they present in the classroom engaged in what we want them to learn, when this is going on in their lives at home?"

Unger, D-Berkeley, is leading a new Senate Select Committee on Childhood Poverty. It is full of Senate leaders. It will meet in and out of session, at the Capitol and around the state. He wants the committee to visit every Senate district, and he wants everyone to meet that third-grader, or another like him.

"I'm convinced if you have that experience you become passionate," he said. "And all this, these charts, these words and verbage and all, starts to have a face to it. It starts to have reality. It starts to have life."

Unger understands something important. One endangered child is acutely motivating, a potential tragedy worth preventing. But 129,000 endangered children quickly become an irritating headache to shrug off.

That's the latest number, by the way -- one in three of West Virginia's 387,000 young people live in poverty. That means they face every problem that poverty brings -- poor nutrition, lower school achievement, ill health, less employability, more violence and time in prison.

The rate goes to 42 percent for African-American children, 50 percent for children of single mothers, 63 percent for children whose parents did not graduate from high school and 71 percent for children of unemployed parents, says this week's report from the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition and the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy.

At the symposium, one participant asked Unger how the committee would stay focused and not suffer the fate of others, so that nothing comes of it.

"On this committee, we are going to stay focused on what's best for - not the children - but the child," Unger said. "See, I said 'best interest of the child.' We say 'children' and all of a sudden we kind of lose this thing, because it's a big group with a bunch of kids.

"No, we need to go down to the micro level and look at an individual child and say, 'What's in that child's best interest?' and make it real."

The Senate Select Committee on Child Poverty plans to meet on Wednesdays at 10 a.m. during the session in Senate Finance.

Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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