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W.Va. child poverty study shows mixed results in E. Panhandle

April 01, 1999|By BRYN MICKLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A new study shows that despite rising child poverty rates in Berkeley County, the Eastern Panhandle is still below the state average for West Virginia.

West Virginia KIDS COUNT, a nonprofit group based in Charleston, W.Va., found the child poverty rate in Berkeley County increased 8.6 percent between 1980 and 1996, with 20.2 percent of the county's children growing up in poverty compared to a 30 percent average statewide and 20.8 percent nationally.

Jefferson and Morgan counties, however, showed decreases in the child poverty rates since 1980.

Morgan County dropped 11.1 percent with 18.4 percent of its children living in poverty and Jefferson County dropped .6 percent with 17.1 percent of children living in poverty, according to the study.

The lower poverty rates in the Eastern Panhandle compared to other parts of the state can be attributed to an increase in higher paying jobs in and around the area, said KIDS COUNT Executive Director Margie Hale.

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Hale said 66 percent of poor families in West Virginia work, but said minimum wage jobs that bring in $12,517 per year are not enough to elevate a family of three with one working parent past the poverty line.

Other areas of concern for the Eastern Panhandle include teen drop-out rates and increasing birth rates for teenagers, said Hale.

Morgan County's teen birth rate rose from 65.6 percent to 78.7 percent over the 16-year period of the study, ranking the county 54th out of 55 in West Virginia.

Birth rates for Berkeley County teens between 15 and 19 improved from 80.8 percent in 1980 to 66.8 percent in 1996 but were still above the state average of 51.4 percent, according to the study.

Jefferson County showed an improvement in teen birth rates, dropping from 64.7 percent to 48.8 percent.

An official in the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources said she was surprised by the numbers in the KIDS COUNT report.

"These numbers are distressing, but there are a number of reasons why kids can fall into poverty," said Shana Phares, assistant to West Virginia's Secretary for Health and Human Resources.

Phares said higher paying jobs in the coal, natural gas and steel industries have steadily been replaced in West Virginia with jobs that pay lower salaries.

She added there are also situations where people do not take advantage of programs that are available for low-income families, including nutritional support programs, food stamps and child health insurance programs.

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