CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the mid-1960s, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described black America "as a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast sea of material prosperity." The words are an apt description of much of the West Side of Charleston.
As quiet as it has been kept, the West Side contains some of the poorest census tracts in West Virginia. The greater West Side spans seven census tracts. These seven tracts have a population of almost 20,000 people, nearly 40 percent of the population of Charleston.
These seven tracts have a combined average child poverty rate of 40.5 percent and an average family poverty rate of 22 percent, according to the 2010 U.S. census. The average family income in these seven census tracts is $19,879.
A couple of inaccurate stereotypes of West Side residents are that the majority are unwilling to work and depend solely on the government for their livelihood or that they are engaged in criminal activity. The truth is, West Side residents, as a group, have a labor work force participation rate of 59.5 percent. This is higher than the 54.3 percent rate for West Virginia.
Unfortunately, many residents from the West Side are undereducated and underskilled. Therefore, many are limited to working in the low-paying service economy. They are part of the working poor.
Gov. Mitt Romney, in his economic arrogance, would include them in his 47 percent who only want a handout, who are addicted to the drug of dependence and who will not take responsibility for themselves. Nicholas Eberstadt, with the American Enterprise Institute, would say that these individuals contribute to the corrosion of the civic good by receiving entitlement benefits.
The truth is that these individuals and others like them are the backbone of Charleston's service economy. Their labor underpins and drives restaurants, hotels, hospitals, retail and city services. They spend their meager wages back into the local economy, enabling many businesses to make a profit.
The working poor were not mentioned by national, state or local politicians because you cannot win an election with a campaign strategy of what you plan to do to help the working poor. But it is in our enlightened economic self-interest that we as a society focus on trying to help the working poor because they are the parents of many of our children who will make up much of our future work force.
Most of the children on Charleston's West Side are from working poor families. These children live in areas of concentrated poverty. This is of particular importance because, according to research published by the U.S. Department of Education, children and youths who are from low-income families and grow up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty face educational challenges above the challenges faced by children who are from low-income families who grow up in neighborhoods without a high concentration of poverty. The higher the concentration of poverty, the lower the student academic achievement.
As we enter the holiday season, let those of us who have means remember the children who live in poverty. We can make a contribution to the Salvation Army, Union Mission, Secret Santa, Toys for Tots, Mountain Mission or other reputable charitable groups.
For those interested in joining a movement to help lift our children out of poverty, I encourage you to contact Stephen Smith at the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition and sign up to be a Child Poverty Campaign partner.
The Rev. Watts is senior pastor at Grace Bible Church.