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New census data shows a quarter of WV kids were living in poverty in 2022


New census data shows a quarter of WV kids were living in poverty in 2022

Sep 18, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Caity Coyne
New census data shows a quarter of WV kids were living in poverty in 2022
West Virginia was the only state to see an increase in child poverty rates between 2021 and 2022. (Getty Images)

One in four children in West Virginia were living in poverty in 2022, according to new data released by the U.S. Census Bureau this week.

West Virginia was the only state in the nation to see its rate of child poverty increase from 2021, according to the data. That increase — a 20% change from the 2021 rate, when 20.7% of children here were living in poverty — does not reflect factors that may push more families into poverty, including an increase in the cost of living, inflation or the discontinuation of safety net programs that helped keep families afloat during the pandemic.

Sean O’Leary, a policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said that while state-by-state data isn’t available for supplemental poverty numbers — which would include tax rebates and other programs that assist families — it’s likely that West Virginia’s rates reflect that of the country as a whole.

According to the Census data, child poverty and overall poverty nationwide more than doubled between 2021 and 2022 when taking into account assistance programs like the now-expired child tax credit.

“We can imagine the same thing is happening in West Virginia — we had so many people who were getting these [pandemic-era] benefits who no longer are,” O’Leary said. “If you count those things, we probably saw our child poverty rate double as well.”

Based on the official poverty measure — which only looks at household income, not safety net programs — the poverty rate for adults in West Virginia stayed basically flat between 2021 and 2022, going from 17.4% to 17.7%, which is well within the margin of error calculated for the data.

O’Leary said this is reason to believe that the dramatic increase in child poverty rates is directly related to government programs started during the pandemic that has now come to an end.

“Those programs were so geared toward kids, and the biggest one by far was the Child Tax Credit,” O’Leary said. “That was the one that was lifting so many kids out of poverty, giving their families a chance to get their legs under them.”

Under the federally expanded Child Tax Credit that was in place from 2020 until the end of 2021, families no longer needed a minimum income to qualify for the benefit. That meant thousands of households that did not qualify for it before were able to access the money for the first time. 

“When they were able to get that credit, it pulled them out of poverty,” O’Leary said. “We know that getting cash assistance directly to families is the simplest way to get them out of poverty. We saw that work during the pandemic, and now we’re seeing that end.”

Congress let the expanded Child Tax Credit expire at the end of 2021 and opted not to support the measure in the 2022 American Rescue Plan.

Locally, though, O’Leary said there is no reason West Virginia can’t act on the credit by itself and implement a state-level tax credit to help families the state knows are struggling. 

“These increases that we’re seeing are not good, and it’s especially not good when you have a state like West Virginia where we have a billion dollar surplus, but we’re not doing anything for children with it,” O’Leary said. “We could easily enact a small childhood tax credit here, but we haven’t. Instead, we made a tax cut that mainly goes toward the wealthy while lower income people are only getting a few more dollars a year. That is not going to touch them or help them substantially.” 

The increase in child poverty is especially concerning, O’Leary said, when considering that increased adverse health outcomes, lower education levels and smaller amounts of lifetime earnings are inextricably tied to childhood poverty.

“We know all of the negative consequences that has for someone over a lifetime, and we should be doing everything we can to keep as many children as possible out of poverty,” O’Leary said. “If we don’t address our childhood poverty, all the things the state is facing right now are going to continue happening for the next generation.”

Notably, O’Leary pointed out, the official poverty rate for West Virginians over the age of 65 has remained relatively stable for the past few years, even as pandemic-era programs started and ended. In addition to being stable, those poverty rates are the lowest of any in West Virginia, according to the Census data.

“What’s funny about that is we have social security and it wasn’t always like that, we didn’t always have that program,” O’Leary said. “We made a policy choice to reduce senior poverty, and we’re going to have to do the same if we want to reduce child poverty. That’s what it will take.”