CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- We are both fathers to infant children. Like many new parents, we worry about how we are going to give our little ones a better life than we had. We make a lot of mistakes, but we are lucky to have good health insurance, brilliant spouses, family nearby, and decent jobs that mean we never have to worry about putting food on the table. But that's not the case for nearly a third of the young kids in our county.
Children who spend their earliest years in poverty suffer consequences all their lives. They're five times more likely to have children outside marriage, twice as likely to be arrested, and three times more likely to have severe health problems than the average kid.
These children are not lost causes. They are the children of the people who take care of us, the children of our firefighters and security guards, of day care teachers and hospice workers. These used to be middle class jobs, but now they don't provide enough to cover rising rent and child care and health-care costs. And it hits our women and children hardest. The average homeless person in America today is a 9-year-old girl.
Poverty not only hurts them -- it hurts all of us. Nobel Laureate James Heckman points out, "The foundation of many skills needed for 21st-century jobs is established in the first five years of life." As West Virginia seeks to build a skilled workforce, poverty is our greatest obstacle.
For these reasons, the release last month of new Census Bureau poverty data troubled us. The data showed that 30 percent of West Virginia children under the age of 6 lived in poverty in 2011. In Kanawha County the problem is even worse, with more than one in three young children living in poverty. For a family of four, that means struggling to make ends meet on $23,021 a year or less -- or just $442 a week. According to West Virginia's Self Sufficiency Standard, a family needs nearly twice that amount to get by.
We know how to help children overcome the effects of poverty. Good early childhood programs help children do better in school, stay out of trouble and work more as adults. Even a little more money in the pockets of vulnerable families can help break the cycle of poverty. When poor families with young children get $3,000 a year in tax credits, those children will work nearly a month more a year as adults.
That is why it is so important for Congress to protect safety net programs and tax credits that do so much to keep children out of poverty, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (formally food stamps). The Earned Income Tax Credit alone lifted 3.1 million children out of poverty in 2011.
Unfortunately, these programs are under attack. The House has passed several proposals that would cut SNAP substantially and end improvements to the EITC and Child Tax Credit. If we want to change our children's future, we need to preserve programs like these that have a proven track record of helping those in poverty.
And, unless Congress prevents it, last year's budget deal will force cuts in January to many programs that help poor children. In West Virginia, Head Start will serve 734 fewer children. More than 400 fewer children will get child care subsidies and almost 90,000 fewer women and children will get health-care services.
To help our children, we need a unified effort to promote change. That's why we have helped form the West Virginia Campaign to Raise Young Children Out of Poverty. We are policy advocates, service providers, religious leaders, parents, labor and business leaders, Democrats, Republicans and Independents. We hope you will join us. We plan to seek changes in our state to reduce poverty, from better maternal health and early childhood development programs to special efforts aimed at helping the children of veterans.
Making sure our kids and parents have a decent shot in life is not only the moral thing to do -- our state's future literally depends on it. With a little courage, West Virginians can take leadership in passing state and federal budgets that open doors for our most vulnerable children. But we are going to need all the brainpower and political will we can get, from every sector and every citizen. Will you join us?
Contact Stephen Smith at ssm...@wvhealthykids.org for more information on what you can do.
Boettner is the executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, and Smith is the executive director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition.